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Fight to get Highspire students into Middletown district likely to continue

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 2/6/19

Highspire Education Coalition likely will continue its legal fight to transfer Highspire students into Middletown Area School District, despite the Jan. 16 order from state Education Secretary Pedro …

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Fight to get Highspire students into Middletown district likely to continue

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Highspire Education Coalition likely will continue its legal fight to transfer Highspire students into Middletown Area School District, despite the Jan. 16 order from state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera denying the transfer because it lacks “educational merit.”

Rivera went beyond his legal authority in incorporating the financial impact of the transfer into his decision, which under law is to be based solely upon educational merit, coalition spokesman Ken Becker told the Press & Journal when asked about why the coalition is considering an appeal.

“Secretary Rivera chose to hide behind an illusion of possible future financial stability to justify his decision to continue to deny the children of Highspire an opportunity to receive the free and appropriate public education to which they are constitutionally entitled,” Becker said in a prepared statement from the coalition that was emailed to the Press & Journal on Jan. 30.

Rivera’s decision amounts to Highspire students being “held captive” because the state has failed to come up with an equitable funding formula for school districts throughout Pennsylvania, Becker told the Press & Journal in a phone interview.

The coalition is leaning toward appealing Rivera’s order in Commonwealth Court. However, the decision whether to do so will be made by a committee of coalition members, Becker said.

Rivera’s order affirmed a February 2018 finding from PDE Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Matthew Stem that also rejected the transfer.

Stem and Rivera both acknowledged that Middletown Area School District outperforms the Steelton-Highspire School District academically — in agreement with the coalition’s basic argument in seeking the transfer.

However, Stem and Rivera both gave significant weight to how the proposed transfer would affect the districts financially — in particular Steelton-Highspire, which according to Rivera’s order would lose an estimated $3.6 million a year from Highspire property tax dollars and state subsidy going to Middletown.

But according to Becker and the coalition, under law the financial impacts of the transfer only can come into play when the petition is being considered by the state Board of Education.

“That’s where it is more subjective,” Becker said. “They can bring in any opinion to approve or deny at that final stage.”

However, the coalition cannot get the petition to the state Board of Education without first getting through PDE, hence the coalition’s consideration of filing an appeal.

The coalition in its prepared statement called Rivera’s order “thoroughly disappointing” and at odds with “overwhelming evidence of substandard academic achievement” in the Steelton-Highspire district. The statement also noted that Rivera had said in his order that Steelton-Highspire will “continue to experience a persistent structural deficit with or without the transfer of the Highspire students.”

The coalition launched the effort in 2014 when it submitted a petition to Dauphin County Court bearing signatures representing 55.44 percent of Highspire taxpayers who favored transferring the Highspire students from the Steelton-Highspire district to Middletown.

Both Middletown and Steelton-Highspire districts have consistently opposed the transfer.

Middletown in a statement issued following Rivera’s denial called the secretary’s order “thoughtful, comprehensive and well-reasoned — and the correct one based upon the facts and the law.”

Middletown said it hoped that the Highspire coalition would accept Rivera’s order, but that if the coalition did not and chose to continue the legal battle, Middletown would continue to oppose the petition.

Becker confirmed that the borough of Highspire has continued to pay the coalition’s legal costs associated with the petition, as has been the case since 2014.

He could not provide a figure, but estimated the total amount of legal costs that the borough has spent to cover the petition since 2014 as no greater than the annual total cost of one full-time police officer.

The legal fees being charged to the borough for the petition are also at “a greatly reduced rate,” because the coalition is a nonprofit organization, Becker said.

Highspire Borough Manager Mark Stonbraker did not return phone calls and an email seeking comment regarding the borough continuing to cover the legal costs.