The first aftershocks of Gov. Tom Corbett’s austere budget are being felt in Somerset, where the school district is planning to close two elementary schools after this school year.

The Somerset Area school board voted unanimously Thursday evening to shutter two of its three K-3 schools: Friedens Elementary and Sipesville Elementary.

“It’s purely the financial position we find ourselves in as a result of the governor’s budget,” board President Randy Welker said Friday. He said the Corbett administration wants to give the district $1.2 million less in the 2011-12 school year.

“I don’t hold out a lot of hope (for more money) with a Republican governor sending the budget to a Republican House and a Republican Senate,” Welker said.

Closing the schools would save the district $674,000 a year, he said. Somerset Area has until June 30 to erase the remaining $526,000 funding gap.

“This was the best educational and financial recommendation we could make: This has the least effect on education,” Superintendent Krista Mathias said.

“It is our teachers, not our buildings, that change students’ lives.”

Both schools are operating at 50 percent or less of their capacity, Welker said.

The closings would be part of an overall reorganization of the schools that essentially bumps the schools down a grade.

Maple Ridge Elementary, now K-3, will be for pupils in grades K-2 in the fall. Eagle View Elementary will shift down from grades 4 to 6 to grades 3 to 5, and the former junior high now will essentially be a middle school covering grades 6 to 8.

The revamp also could establish unified start times and school days.

The K-5 day would run from 8 a.m. until 2:35 p.m. Students in grades 6 to 12 would go from 7:41 a.m. to 2:52 p.m.

No teacher layoffs are planned, though Welker said there’s a good possibility furloughs will hit the support staff.

Welker acknowledged the loss to the neighborhoods.

“There’s a significant emotional and historical tie in these small communities to these local schools. But I’m afraid we can’t afford to accommodate them any longer,” he said.

Heather Tokar, president of the Sipesville Parent Teacher Student Association, took the vote in stride.

“Coming from somebody who had elementary education at Sipesville Elementary, it’s a very sad event but understandable with the way the economy is. The school district has to close the smaller schools,” she said.

“The kids are resilient and will be fine.”

Despite what she termed a “catastrophic revenue loss,” Mathias said the district’s proposals actually could result in lower taxation in the new school year.


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