Rockland residents plea to keep building
The Derrick, 3/1/02 By SHEILA BOUGHNER-BLAIR

A special thank you to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted


PHOTO BY JERRY SOWDEN

The Rockland Elementary School gymnasium was nearly filled to capacity Thursday evening during a special "Neighborhood Meeting" hosted by the Cranberry School board. The Rockland meeting -- the last of four elementary school meetings -- gave the school board the opportunity to hear public input as to the fate and future of the district's neighborhood schools that include Pinoak, Pinegrove, Steffee, and Rockland.

About 125 people crowded into the Rockland Elementary School gymnasium Thursday to share their views with the Cranberry School Board.

Many made passionate pleas for the retention of the Rockland school.

The first speaker provided the board with some background designed to explain why some Rockland residents feel such passion about the Rockland School.

Students from 77 families attend the school, she said. Of those 77 families, 36 are second-generation, 20 are third-generation, 13 are fourth-generation and eight are fifth-generation.

"That is the strength of this school," she said.

"My dad was part of the Scout troop that planted the grass seed for this school," she added.

She said her father told her about a Halloween tradition at the old Rockland school involving the school bell. When the bell was placed in front of the school, she took on the task of tending the flowerbed surrounding the bell as her part in the tradition.

"When it came time for my kids to go to school, I couldn't fathom them going to school in any other building. This is home," she said.

Many speakers described the school and community as "an extended family."

One praised the knowledge the teachers have of their young charges.

"They even know my kids are allergic to bees. It's like a family thing. I would just like to keep them here as long as I could," she said.

"By nature of everybody knowing everybody . . . that provides a level of accountability and responsibility you don't get in a larger school," another argued. "If everybody knows who you are, where you live, and your mom and dad, it's going to get around."

Many expressed a fear that students would be "lost in the shuffle" in a larger school.

"What we have here is special, almost magical," one man said. He described the school as "a genuine success story."

One lone figure spoke up in favor of Cranberry Elementary.

"We at Cranberry also are on a first-name basis with our teachers," he said.

He urged the board to reach some consensus when it makes a decision about the district's buildings.

"No matter what you do, we as parents and taxpayers need to see something from the board that you are in a definite majority. . . . If you go 5 to 4, it will be a lot harder for us to swallow, to accept. We need to see some real leadership from the members of this board," he said.

Former school board member Vic Garmong wrapped up the proceedings with a presentation of data to the board. He provided each board member and many in the audience with copies of a 47-page booklet of information he compiled and presented a summary of the information.

"This information is meant to help you, to add to what you have. It is not meant in any way to pay disrespect to what you have already done."

According to the 2000 census, Cranberry Township lost 242 people (since the 1990 census), Pinegrove Township gained 18 people and Rockland Township lost 6 people, he said.

As for individual schools, Cranberry elementary lost the most students, followed by Steffee, Pinoak and Rockland. Pinegrove's enrollment "has leveled off and is increasing," he said.

He argued that the larger declines in population occurred in the areas closest to Cranberry Township's commercial zone and predicted that if population growth does occur in the district, it will occur seven miles from the center of the commercial zone.

"Rockland and Pinegrove will be the bedroom communities for the commercial zone," he said.

He also discussed declines in state subsidies as the student population declines and district wealth increases.

"The data does not support a building project," Garmong concluded.

He recommended the adoption of a five-year plan and a 10-year plan and urged the board to postpone major changes until after the impact of the new hospital is known.

He suggested updating Pinoak and Steffee for five years and and re-evaluating those buildings at the end of that time. According to his plan, Cranberry and Rockland would be upgraded for 10 years and re-evaluated at the end of that time.

"The data does not support a new building anywhere but Pinegrove," he said.

"I would like to see you keep all of the schools open for five years. As a taxpayer, I'd be willing to pay for that. . . . You'll see in five years that the elementary school in Cranberry is in the wrong location. Whatever happens, it's going to happen in Pinegrove first," he said.

A civil lawsuit filed by Garmong in August 1998 against the Cranberry School District and a number of district officials and former district officials is still pending.