Attendees at packed public hearing strongly oppose Boyertown schools' possible closing of Pine Forge Elementary

At a hearing Monday night, the public strongly opposed the Boyertown School District's potential closing of Pine Forge Elementary School.

BOYERTOWN — Parents of Pine Forge Elementary School students sent a clear message Monday night to the Boyertown School Board: Keep Pine Forge open.

About 125 parents, teachers and community members attended a state-required public hearing on the potential closure of the Douglass (Berks) Township school.

Boyertown Area School District Superintendent Dana T. Bedden, said closing Pine Forge could save the district between $1.9 million and $8.7 million because of what it may cost to modernize the building, which dates to 1928.

“When I arrived one year ago, I was given a performance goal for the effective use of existing space, the better use of resources and reducing operating costs,” Bedden said.

In late July, the board approved a resolution to consider closing Pine Forge, which necessitated the public hearing.

Only six board members approved the resolution, with Clay Breece, Christine Neiman and Ruth Dierolf opposing the process.

Board Solicitor Jeffrey T. Sultanik said the public-school code requires that 90 days pass after the hearing before the board can vote to close the school.

Sultanik said the board will vote on the matter at a regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 26.

Pine Forge has a current enrollment of 215 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Administrators said that total has decreased every year since 2013. Bedden said the district has been working with Montgomery Education Consultants Inc., which projected the declining enrollment to continue.

The school has 19 professional employees and 16 support staff; that staff would fill vacant positions in one of the district's nine other school buildings.

Parent Krista Gross criticized the board for not being transparent.

“Being transparent has never been the district's strong suit,” Gross said. “You give out conflicting information with every presentation, and this district is constantly playing clean-up from one bad decision after another. Our kids deserve classroom (sizes) that allow them to excel.”

Several parents accused the administration of rushing to a vote to close the school before a new school board is seated in December.

“The present board majority has shown visible bias to closure,” said attendee Jim Brophy. “This process is merely smoke and being used to satisfy a procedural requirement. Some candidates (for school board) do not support the closure of the school. My solution is simple: With a decision of this magnitude, let the voting population decide in November.”

At the start of the hearing, Sultanik said board members would not make comments, but Dierolf and Neiman signed up prior to the hearing to make public comment as part of the official record.

Dierolf said she does not believe data from the administration is accurate.

“The information was gathered from a consultant, which can slant the information to the extent desired from the person hiring them,” Dierolf said. “A choice to close the school spits in the face of the people I have represented for years.”

Board member Neiman likewise criticized the administration for the information it gives to board members.

“Let's remember we are here for students,” she said. “The building does not educate the students; great teachers do. Let's keep Pine Forge open.”

Several parents said closing the school will only cost the district more money if enrollments grow and a new school has to be built.

“With all of the construction of homes on the other side of Route 100, we will be in need of a new elementary school,” attendee Dale Watkins said. “It will cost a lot less to renovate Pine Forge than to buy land and build a new school. You will be back here in three to five years telling us we need a new elementary school.”

Other residents accused the board of not respecting the work Pine Forge teachers do, complained about increasing class sizes at all of the elementary schools should Pine Forge close, and raised objections to longer bus rides for existing Pine Forge students.

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