Elementary reconfiguration removed from agenda
By SARIT LASCHINSKY
Special to The Press
During their first, full in-person board meeting in more than a year, Northwestern Lehigh School Board members narrowly voted to strike an agenda item regarding discussion and voting on a proposed elementary reconfiguration plan.
The plan called for moving kindergarten- through third-grade students to Weisenberg Elementary, and fourth- and fifth-grade students to Northwestern Elementary starting with the 2021-22 school year.
The plan was recommended by district administration as the best model to strengthen the learning community and provide equitable, enhanced educational opportunities and resources to students.
Board members voted 5-4 at their April 21 board meeting, to remove the item, which Solicitor Jessica Moyer noted meant there would be no discussion or vote on the item, but also that it did not preclude the board from possibly reintroducing or discussing the matter in the future.
Board members John Casciano, Joseph Fatzinger, Rosemarie Lister, James Warfel and board President Willard Dellicker voted “yes” on the motion.
School Directors Todd Hernandez, Todd Leiser, Alan Rex and Rachael Scheffler voted “no.”
Numerous board members commented on removal of the elementary reconfiguration plan.
Dellicker thanked members of the school community for having patience and trust in the board while they conducted studies on reconfiguration, which he said would be discussed ‘in complete openness and candor.”
He also thanked teachers and administration for their research, evaluations and presentations and said the plan “offered a permanent solution that effectively addressed our overcrowded and underused buildings.
“They offered educational equity and a unified identity, I think, for all the Tigers on both sides of our boundary line,” Dellicker said.
Dellicker thanked parents for their passionate messages about the impact of reconfiguration on their families and noted board members had to vote on “extremely difficult issues” related to the proposed grade shifts.
“I think this entire process can be looked at by our community as a teachable moment,” he said. “This community doesn’t solve its problems with name-calling and endless right-to-know requests, threats of legal action and ethics charges and intimidation, which only drive a wedge between us.
“we come together and respectfully debate. We share views and opinions, then we deliberate and, in the end, do what we believe is best for the community.”
Dellicker also said the motion to drop the reconfiguration plan would allow the district to study the issue more completely and understand unknown challenges that will be faced with post-COVID enrollments.
He added while the issue could resurface in the future, more information was needed.
Warfel said administrators made their recommendation and position on reconfiguration clearly understood, but added the board heard from numerous community stakeholders.
He had received nearly 100 emails from parents, staff and community members about reconfiguration which showed their concerns and positions.
Warfel said around 65 emails opposed the plan.
He added the board had not held significant deliberations about the administration’s proposal or alternate solutions to the current kindergarten through fifth grade arrangement, and had not dissected the input from community members to understand the breadth of their concerns.
“They are major stakeholders in this decision and have raised numerous concerns, questions and thoughtful suggestions I believe would deserve our consideration if we were to move forward with this discussion at any point in time,” he said.
Casciano also said he had received numerous emails from the public.
He told the administration he was not interested in revisiting the reconfiguration topic again.
“The administration and the community spent an overwhelming amount of time with this topic, and I feel the time and effort we put in to it should be spent looking into more creative alternatives,” he said, adding he had challenged the administration to come up with new solutions to solve the overcrowding issues at Northwestern Elementary.
Casciano noted that at a previous board meeting, he had asked members of the public who supported the reconfiguration plan to send more emails about their position.
He said, however, he received “less than 10” supporting emails, while a petition with more than 600 resident signatures opposing the proposal had been received by the full board.
Leiser said the district is currently sitting on several financial and educational performance reviews which show “vast issues” that must be faced in the coming years.
“Northwestern Lehigh is not going to look the same, eight years or 10 years down the road,” Leiser said.
Leiser thanked the community for their messages and passionate responses, but said much of what he heard was looking at the short-term impact instead of potential long-term implications which need to be addressed.
He noted millions of dollars are leaving the district’s budget, and Northwestern Lehigh is projecting to run a deficit beyond taxable allowance increases for the foreseeable future.
“I would just ask you also pay attention to the potential down-the-road financial implications of the program cuts that may indeed be coming,” he said.
Leiser said what he did not see in many parent messages was the inequity in education performance between the two schools.
“I was really hoping to see more Northwestern Elementary families pounding the table and demanding they be offered the same equitable educational opportunities as the children at Weisenberg,” Leiser said.
Fatzinger said he would not be opposed to seeing the topic of reconfiguration come back but he would need more information and comprehensive study on the different available options, as well as the financial impact.
He said taking a pause to revisit the issue “is the right thing to do.”
Lastly, Scheffler said a comment she made at the April workshop meeting had been referenced in numerous parent meetings.
She clarified her comment “simply was meant to imply the board should be trusting and respecting the recommendations made by administrators and educators on important topics, be it reconfiguration or something else.”
Scheffler said her words were not intended to suggest board members were not solely knowledgeable about what was best for students, but to support the administration’s recommendation regarding the best educational structure which the board could back in order to provide inclusive and protective educational experiences.
Scheffler also said as a board member, her responsibility was to support the community and ensure that “unbiased board members are making decision always with the best interests of students in every vote that we make,” adding that “there’s never a good time to make hard decisions, and that people will always be affected.”
“I don’t like to think that in the future people are defining the definition of ‘community’ by the building their children are going to school in,” Scheffler concluded.