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If West Leechburg residents continue efforts to transfer the borough to another school district, it would become the fifth Pennsylvania municipality in recent years to seek such a move.
And if the other four cases are any indication, the process wouldn’t be an easy one for West Leechburg. The state has approved only one of the previous requests. While one request was shot down, and two requests have been tied up in courts for years.
“This is a legal proceeding. It can be litigious. And it can get emotional,” said Michael Foreman, a local government policy specialist for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
West Leechburg residents haven’t taken any formal steps to leave Leechburg Area School District, but the idea was discussed at a residents-only meeting in June. Some residents have expressed frustration over the years with the district’s tax situation. Leechburg Area’s $15.3 million budget for this school year includes a 3.8% tax increase for West Leechburg property owners but tax decreases for ones in Leechburg and Gilpin.
Because the district spans two counties — West Leechburg is in Westmoreland County, Leechburg and Gilpin are in Armstrong County — a complex formula intended to equalize the taxes is used.
“We’ve run numbers showing that there’s well over $1,000-plus in savings if you could leave the Leechburg Area School District to the
average resident up here,” said West Leechburg council Vice President Tim Grantz.
Tax concerns factored into a failed effort by residents of Pike County’s Porter Township to leave East Stroudsburg School District in the Poconos region. The Porter Township Initiative’s request to join the Wallenpaupack Area School District was denied after state officials determined that a decrease in property taxes was one of the most motivating factors for the transfer request.
“It is telling … that in its petition to residents, (Porter Township Initiative) listed the 47% decrease in property taxes as the number one reason to support the transfer, but it excluded that statistic in the petition submitted to the Court of Common Pleas,” a special committee appointed by the State Board of Education wrote in its September 2013 decision.
Cases involving residents of York County’s Washington Township and Dauphin County’s Highspire got tied up in the courts for years.
In July 2012, the Washington Township Education Coalition petitioned the York County Court of Common Pleas to leave Dover Area School District to join Northern York County School District.
More than eight years and at least $60,000 in legal fees later, they’re still fighting that battle.
“We never realized we were going to have to go through the ordeal that we’re going through,” coalition President Ralph McGregor said.
The coalition in the tiny township of about 2,000 people believed their children would receive a better quality of education in the new district. The State Board of Education denied their request, setting off a chain of appeals.
In June, a state appellate court gave the township permission to leave Dover Area and join Northern York County. The judges said the State Board of Education had “erred in its evaluation of the standards for the organization of school districts set forth in the School Code and the board’s regulations as applied to the application for approval.”
That decision was appealed by Dover Area to the state Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court decides not to review it, the case will be over.
“I’m hoping the appeal will be rejected, and we’ll be authorized to make the transfer for the 2021-22 school year,” McGregor said.
Education matters most
Taxes can be a motivating factor in whether the State Board of Education allows a municipality to transfer school districts, but they cannot be the sole reason, according to Daniel Fennick, attorney for the Washington Township Education Coalition. Fennick said the main thing the State Board of Education will consider is educational merit, or whether students will receive a better quality of education in the new district.
Fennick said the main reason behind Washington Township’s move was that Dover Area had closed an elementary school that was beloved by the community. After that, children were bused to another elementary school about 45 minutes away.
“That’s what really sparked this,” Fennick said.
Fennick said the decision made by the appeals court regarding Washington Township’s transfer will likely set a precedent for other communities.
“The opinion we got is very helpful to other (communities) that want to leave because at least it sets out what you actually have to show and what the role of the state board is. The state board thought they just could say, ‘No, we don’t think it’s a good idea, we’re denying it.’ That’s not the way it works,” Fennick said.
A Department of Education spokesman told the Tribune-Review no one was available to comment for this story.
The only request approved by the State Board of Education came from Bucks County’s Riegelsville, which sought for the entire borough to become part of Palisades School District. The eastern part of the borough had been part of Easton Area School District, while the western part was in Palisades.
“The transfer will for the first time in decades restore the Borough of Riegelsville as part of a single school district — and one that is contiguous to the borough,” a State Board of Education special committee wrote in a July 2012 report. “The transfer will benefit the students of Riegelsville educationally. And there is no evidence that the students who remain in the Easton Area School District or the students in the Palisades School District will be harmed by the transfer.”
A long process
Foreman, the local government policy specialist with the DCED, said in order to leave a school district and join a new one, a community must present a petition signed by the majority of its residents to the county Court of Common Pleas. If the court determines the case has educational merit, it is sent to the state secretary of education, and, ultimately, the State Board of Education for consideration.
The State Board of Education will consider topography, student population, community characteristics, student transportation, use of existing school buildings, potential population changes and the capability of producing a comprehensive program of education when making its decision, Foreman said.
If initially approved, Foreman said, the process could take two to three years. And that’s not including any potential appeals.
“It takes time to work through these issues. Feasibility studies have to be done of the impact should it be approved or should it take place. You’ve got to look at the impact of all of these various factors,” Foreman said.
West Leechburg also discussed possibly merging with neighboring Allegheny Township, which is in Westmoreland County and part of the Kiski Area School District. But that move, by itself, wouldn’t take the borough out of Leechburg Area School District, Foreman said.
“When you have a municipal boundary change, approved by voters, that in no way affects where the children of the impacted municipalities go to school. They continue in the same school district,” Foreman said.
Both West Leechburg and Allegheny Township approved sending letters of interest to the DCED for a merging compatibility study, which was approved by the state. West Leechburg Council members Matt Grantz and Marcia Cole, who have been vocal about the tax situation, said they do not want to merge with Allegheny Township but they approved moving forward with the study because it could be informative.
Both council members are interested in leaving Leechburg Area and joining another school district. But they can’t move forward with a citizen-driven petition because they are elected officials.
“We would have to get some group of residents who would want to do that and be able to go through the process,” Matt Grantz said. “I still think it’s worth doing — or at least worth giving a long look to — but that depends on people’s willingness to get together and do it.”
Cole is willing to do what she can to help, but said the potential cost of the litigation could be a problem.
“They don’t do it for free. People aren’t going to want to kick out money to enter into a longstanding court battle to try to get it separated. That’s the hurdle I foresee,” Cole said.
Tammy Jo Capozzoli is a former West Leechburg resident who organized the residents-only meeting. She said she is still willing to help, though she has since moved to Butler County. But she doesn’t want to get drawn into a years-long legal battle.
West Leechburg council Vice President Tim Grantz hopes cases like Washington Township’s can set a precedent for the borough. He encouraged residents to start a petition to get the ball rolling.
“Once the legal precedent’s set, you get your ducks in the same row as that legal precedent and you’re in good shape,” Grantz said.
Madasyn Lee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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