New Castle News

February 26, 2013

Communities losing neighborhood schools

John Finnerty
CNHI

HARRISBURG — Julie Finkbiner thinks small neighborhood schools are “jewels” that serve schools and communities well.

They provide academic environments that produce young people more connected to the places where they live, she said.

“These small schools are treasures that are being treated like trash.”

Finkbiner led an unsuccessful crusade to the save the neighborhood school in New Berlin in Union County. But she was not defeated.

As president of the New Berlin Borough Council, she was able to convince the other members to buy the vacant school. At the last council meeting, a committee was appointed to consider what to do with it.

It is a fight being waged across Pennsylvania in big cities and small villages.

On the day Gov. Tom Corbett delivered his budget address, busloads of protesters descended on Harrisburg to express their outrage over a plan to shutter 29 schools in Philadelphia.

That is on top of the 207 public schools in Pennsylvania’s 500 districts closed in the first two years of the Corbett administration.

Twenty-eight of them were in 56 districts in eight rural Pennsylvania counties surveyed for this story.

No one seems to have a handle yet on how many more schools will close in 2013.

A department of education spokesman said data about upcoming school closings has not been compiled yet.

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Board Association, said that while it is not clear how many schools will close, there are certainly more on the chopping block.

Corbett’s budget only includes an average 1.65 percent basic education funding increase and even the $1 billion targeted grant program tied to liquor privatization would not provide money for the 2013-14 budget year.

Robinson said he monitors news coverage of school board meetings across the state and there are numerous districts where school closings are being discussed.

“You might move to a neighborhood because you want your kids to be able to walk to school, but if the kids have to ride the bus because the school closed, you might wonder what is the point of living in the neighborhood, anymore,” said Thomas Hylton, a Pultizer Prize-winning writer and anti-sprawl advocate.

The buildings may remain vacant or when another use is found, it rarely is the sort of thing that attracts young families. One of the more common ways of recycling schools is to turn them into senior housing, which fills a need but does not exactly replace the void created by the flight of young families, said Bill Fontana, executive director of The Pennsylvania Downtown Center.

“Seniors are less mobile, have less disposable income and it is a population, that, by and large, tends not to get as involved in the community.”

Fontana said the concerns about the community-damaging impact of closing neighborhood schools was recognized more than a decade ago by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Smart Growth Network, which issued a report suggesting, among other things, that when community schools must be replaced the district replace them with facilities in the same neighborhoods.

Fontana said there appears to be a trend of developing in some areas where young people are opting to move back into the smaller cities with the intention of raising their families in the community. If that trend begins to pick up steam it would bode well for many of the communities fighting to keep their schools.

In the meantime, community leaders across Pennsylvania are fighting to save schools or find some way to recapture the vitality that the neighborhood school once brought.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)