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Petition to get Highspire students into Middletown Area School District once again rejected

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 1/24/19

If the Highspire Education Coalition was in the batter’s box, the count would be no balls for and two strikes against.

Whether another pitch is on the way depends on the coalition, which …

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Petition to get Highspire students into Middletown Area School District once again rejected

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If the Highspire Education Coalition was in the batter’s box, the count would be no balls for and two strikes against.

Whether another pitch is on the way depends on the coalition, which since August 2014 has been trying to get students from Highspire out of Steelton-Highspire School District and into next-door Middletown Area School District.

But the prospect of that happening appears more remote now than ever, following a Jan. 16 opinion rejecting the transfer issued by Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.

Rivera’s rejection affirms the same conclusions opposing the transfer that PDE Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Matthew Stem had arrived at in February 2018.

The coalition’s petition is in Commonwealth Court, which could decide to dismiss the case in light of Rivera’s ruling. However the fight could still continue, if the coalition chooses to appeal.

Ken Becker, a spokesman for the coalition, did not respond to a request for comment from the Press & Journal. W. Darren Powell, an attorney representing the coalition, also did not respond.

No statements regarding Rivera’s ruling or updates on the case could be found on the coalition website and Facebook page, which have posted nothing since November 2018.

The coalition has sought the transfer because it believes that Highspire children would get a better education in Middletown than in the Steelton-Highspire district, which the coalition regards as inferior academically to Middletown.

Approving the petition could lead to the transfer of 363 school-age children living in Highspire to the Middletown district, based on 2016-17 enrollment data, according to Rivera’s opinion.

Middletown district expressed its support for Rivera’s decision, and its opposition to the transfer sought by the Highspire coalition, in a prepared statement written by the district solicitor and read by Superintendent Lori Suski during the school board’s Jan. 22 meeting.

Middletown Area School District “believes the secretary’s decision is thoughtful, comprehensive and well-reasoned - and the correct one based upon the facts and the law,” the district’s statement read in part.

“MASD’s strong preference would be for the parties to accept the findings reached by the secretary of education as final, and for HEC (the coalition) to bring this litigation to an end. But if HEC persists in continuing this litigation for another round, MASD is prepared to defend the correctness of the secretary of education decision.”

As with Stem’s finding a year ago, Rivera rejected the petition based upon the “educational merits” of the transfer. But his opinion also dovetailed with Stem, in that Rivera took into account significant financial impacts of the transfer, especially on Steelton-Highspire.

Removing Highspire and adding it to the Middletown district would transfer about $1.6 million a year in local taxes out of Steelton-Highspire — a “large portion” of the district’s overall local tax base, Rivera stated in his 37-page opinion.

While Steelton-Highspire could see some reduction in debt, the transfer could also lead to the annual loss of an estimated $2 million in state subsidy, he noted.

“This significant loss in revenue” from transfer of both the local tax dollars and state subsidy “would undermine Steelton-Highspire financially, make it difficult to balance its budget, and weaken its ability to provide services to students,” Rivera pointed out. “This petition would punch a material hole in Steelton-Highspire’s budget … there was no evidence of easy ways in which Steelton-Highspire would be able to save money as the result of the transfer of these students without cutting educational programs to the students that remain.”

While Middletown would appear to benefit from an increase in revenue to the district resulting from the transfer, Rivera said that positive is outweighed by other impacts that the Middletown district has pointed to.

Middletown “appears rightfully concerned that the transfer of the Highspire students, particularly in the lower grades, would strain class size and building capacity,” Rivera wrote. “This is something that weighs against the petition.”

“Also, such a transfer also appears particularly ill-timed for Middletown considering their recent building projects which would have to be revisited given such an influx of students,” Rivera said, referring to Middletown’s ongoing consideration regarding the need for new construction to handle anticipated increases in elementary enrollment — even without adding any new students from Highspire. “Looking at all of the educational benefits and detriments contained in this petition to all the impacted parties, it is clear that the detriments outweigh the benefits.”

Rivera acknowledged that Middletown outperforms Steelton-Highspire academically, as measured by test scores.

Middletown also “appears to do a better job at fostering student growth in its students, regardless of socioeconomic background. Middletown also out performs Steelton-Highspire in areas such as attendance, truancy, dropout and graduation rates,” Rivera found.

But Steelton-Highspire is on par with Middletown in other areas, including the offering of academic courses and programs that accommodate students of various abilities and interests, Rivera determined.

Both districts are equal in their support of parental involvement.

Rivera also noted Steelton-Highspire’s contention that its lower test scores compared to Middletown are the result of “financial challenges” facing the district, and that approving the petition “would derail the academic progress that the district has made and will have a negative impact on the remaining students at Steelton-Highspire.”

Other factors that could otherwise favor the petition, such as ending “discontiguous” district boundaries or reducing long transportation times, have not been identified as issues by the coalition, Rivera said.

This petition is not a “win-win” for either the Middletown or Steelton-Highspire communities “by consideration of most of the traditional factors relevant to education merit,” he concluded.