Board nixes merger inquiries

The Northgate School Board overwhelmingly agreed Monday not to direct the district’s superintendent to formally contact other school districts to gauge interest in a potential future merger with Northgate.

The decision by the board came after a mixed group of residents stated either that the tax increases projected for at least the next five years are not acceptable, or that they were willing to pay even more for their children’s education.

A push to consider a merger came after the board received a five-year financial projection last spring that indicated that even if the board raised property tax millage rates by the full amount of the state-allowed index, the district still would be in the red at the end of five years. Several board members used those projections to justify a tax increase for 2018-19, a measure that ultimately was rejected by the board.The annual tax increases are estimated to cost the average homeowner about $75 each year, or nearly $500 more only a half-dozen years from now.

In June, the board approved a budget totaling $25,393,273 at the current millage rate of 24.7867. Business manager Chris Ursu said that the budget was balanced with the projected transfer of $2.7 million from the district's $11.5 million reserve fund. Northgate continues to boast one of the highest millage rates in Allegheny County.

At Monday’s regular board meeting, speakers were divided among those adamantly opposed to a merger, and those who said the board needed to investigate options other than increasing taxes.

Parent Val Pennington, who serves on Bellevue Council and coaches girls’ volleyball, summed up the board’s challenge: “You’re beholden to the taxpayers...but your responsibility is to the students.”

He was one of several parents who said that a merger that put Northgate students into a larger district would have a negative effect on students. “i’d be willing to pay more taxes” if it would have a positive impact on educational outcomes, he said.

Underlying the financial concerns at Northgate are the district’s extremely low performance rankings compared to other districts across the state. Northgate officials maintain that the rankings are skewed, that they do not accurately measure student achievement, and that they should improve in the near future due to a change in the way the rankings are determined and changes in the Northgate curriculum that board members say already have resulted in better state test scores.

Board president Gary Paladin kicked off the formal discussion of the merger option, saying that he had moved into the district because of the small schools, and that he was willing to pay higher taxes for smaller schools.

Board member Jennifer McWilliams said that Northgate was being hurt by people making negative comments on social media. “I stand behind Northgate,” she said. “I see us on a very positive path and I want to see it continue.” She later added that if teachers and other employees learned that Northgate was actively pursuing merger options, they would begin leaving the district for more stable employment.

Board member Michael Rajakovic agreed that not enough news about the good things happening at Northgate was reaching the public, and added that financial projections are subject to change.

Amy Joy Robinson said that “this is the first time I’ve really felt proud of Northgate,” as the passion for education returned, but that she also was concerned about the district’s finances.”

Shannon Smithey said that the lay-off of two dozen teachers several years ago cost the district in terms of its ability to educate students, and that the district was still trying to make up for that loss. She also noted that some of the people arguing in favor of a merger also wanted Northgate to spend nearly a half million dollars on football field lights. The bottom line, she said, is that “It’s a multi-variable issue” and that there was no “silver bullet" that would solve the district’s problems.

Dan O’Keefe said that one big problem is that the state does not “incentivize merger,” so that there is mutual benefit for both merging districts. He said that he had graduated from North Hills High School in a class of 624 students, and that he would not trade the benefits of a small school for that experience.

Christine King said that she had concerns about the district’s finances, especially given that there are only about 1,000 students in the entire district. She said that the board should “explore partnerships.”

“I think we are tasked with making some tough decisions,” she said.

John Gratner said that no one wanted a merger, but that the board needed to decide whether to explore various options. “Let’s buy all the time that we can” and hope that things change, he said.

Tim Makatura also extolled the advantages of children attending small classes where they and their families are known and they are not just “numbers.” He suggested focusing on things that will make the district better, and possibly make it more attractive in case a merger becomes necessary in the future.