Imagine

If you grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and especially in Beaver County, during the 1960s, you never possibly could have imagined that in the not-too-distant future there would be no Midland High School.

It was a magical time for the mill towns all along the Ohio River, as the steel companies pumped more than enough revenue into the local economy. And in the midst of all that prosperity, there was Midland High School. The school’s sports teams alone created a sense of community that drew in people from all over. They were unstoppable, unbeatable, featuring the likes of basketball legends Simmie Hill and Norm Van Lier and Ron Brown. They were larger than life, especially to a young child swept up in the fervor.

Less than a decade after the height of prosperity in the region, the steel mills began shutting down. The high-paying jobs dwindled until they all but disappeared. People moved away, businesses closed, and the town of Midland had no way of making up the economic deficit. The great Midland High School eventually became a casualty. Its doors were closed and its students were sent to whatever area schools could be coerced into taking them.

About the same time as Midland was rapidly becoming a historical legend, the officials of Avalon and Bellevue were moving towards a merger of their two school districts, which allowed the construction of a new high school on the hill above both towns, and no less than four elementary schools. Business was booming, people were flocking in from the city, and life was good. It was so good that when the neighboring Avonworth School District, sitting in the middle of a sea of little-income-producing farmland, asked to join the merger talks, the new Northgate School District wanted no parts of it. Like the people of the Midland area in the 1960s, no one could imagine that the tables would turn so drastically.

And they did turn. Avalon and Bellevue turned out to be pit stops on the urban exodus north. Those refugees from high taxes and crime ended up in Ohio Township and points north. In no time at all, it seemed, Avalon and Bellevue lost a good third of their populations.

There are, of course, many, many other factors that came into play in the process of turning Northgate – and possibly someday soon Avonworth – into a school district that could not afford to educate its students. With Pennsylvania school districts caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, the only options available to keep those school doors open are to increase local property taxes and/or cut spending. With the newest studies showing a direct correlation between per-student spending and the quality of education and academic performance, the cost-cutting measures take as great a toll on our children as the tax-increasing measures are sure to take on our communities.

It is time for everyone to imagine the unimaginable. In fact, when a school district tells us that increasing taxes every year will leave the district flat broke in four or five years, it is long past time to start thinking more creatively than we ever have thought before.

One theory is that local property values, especially in Bellevue, will increase, providing additional revenue for the school district. The chances of them increasing enough in just a couple years to make up the multi-million dollar deficit at Northgate is unlikely. These things just don’t happen that fast.

Another theory is that the state and federal governments need to be convinced to supply more funding for the schools. While school subsidies have increased quite a bit under Gov. Tom Wolf, they are still far from what is needed to fund our schools adequately. A grassroots advocacy campaign focused on influencing state legislators is clearly needed, and so far does not seem to exist. Apparently no one imagined that it would be needed. Even starting today, however, it would take years to develop an effective organization with the power to reach the legislators who are sending millions – if not billions – of our tax dollars to cyber and charter schools, which happen to have a pretty powerful lobbying machine in Harrisburg.

How effective a pro-public schools lobby could be pretty much depends on all of you, and so far your engagement has been less than impressive. With Northgate clearly teetering on the edge of a very steep cliff, NOT ONE SINGLE taxpayer attended the school board meeting on June 11. Not one.

So it may be left to a handful of school board members to look farther outside the box than they ever have in the past. The time to imagine and explore is now.