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Ruling strengthens push for Highspire students to attend Middletown Area School District

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 3/2/20

A six-year battle to transfer 276 students from the Steelton-Highspire School District to Middletown has new life from a Commonwealth Court ruling Monday.

The court ruled that the state secretary …

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Ruling strengthens push for Highspire students to attend Middletown Area School District

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A six-year battle to transfer 276 students from the Steelton-Highspire School District to Middletown has new life from a Commonwealth Court ruling Monday.

The court ruled that the state secretary of education erred in January 2019 when he dismissed on financial grounds a petition from the Highspire Education Coalition seeking to transfer students to the Middletown Area School District.

The coalition says the students will get a better education in the Middletown district than in Steelton-Highspire.

The transfer petition has been consistently opposed by both the Middletown and Steelton-Highspire school districts.

The ruling was included in a 19-page opinion written by President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt. The crux of the ruling is that despite acknowledging data that Highspire students would perform better academically in Middletown than in Steelton-Highspire, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera in his rejection of the petition argued this “educational merit” was outweighed by the financial impact the transfer would have on Steelton-Highspire.

“I cannot ignore that if granted, this petition would punch a material hole in Steelton-Highspire’s budget on account of a loss of revenue,” Rivera said in his ruling. “There was no evidence of easy ways in which Steelton-Highspire would be able to save money as the result of the transfer of these students without cutting education programs to the students that remain.”

But Rivera’s mandate under the law is to be limited to determining whether the petition has educational merit, according to Leavitt’s ruling, so Rivera exceeded his authority in considering financial effects.

Adam C. Zei, a lawyer representing the coalition, said in a statement that the coalition appealed Rivera’s initial denial of the petition “in an effort to have the review correctly focused on educational concerns and not financial matters.”

“We’re pleased with the opinion,” coalition spokesman Ken Becker told the Press & Journal in a brief telephone interview immediately following release of the Commonwealth Court ruling. “It definitely was what we were expecting and (it) overturned the ruling that we felt was inappropriate.”

“Ensuring the children of Highspire are receiving a high-quality education has always been our top priority,” Becker said later in the prepared statement issued by Zei. “Today’s decision recognizes that objective and brings us even closer to the delivery of our goal to our students.”

Jeffrey Litts, solicitor to Middletown Area School District, said he will review the ruling with the school district. District Superintendent Lori Suski deferred to Litts for comment.

Steelton-Highspire Superintendent Travis Waters did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While the ruling technically orders that a new school district be created for Highspire, it is only a procedural requirement to have those students join MASD.

What’s next?

A final resolution to the matter could be several years away.

Leavitt’s ruling sends the petition back to Dauphin County Court, where the court is to “enter a decree establishing an independent school district” — essentially granting the coalition petition.

The transfer request started in Dauphin County Court in 2014. The court dismissed the petition after Rivera’s rejection in 2019.

That allowed the coalition to appeal the county court dismissal, and therefore Rivera’s ruling, to Commonwealth Court.

Either school district could appeal Leavitt’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Absent such an appeal, county court after granting the petition would hold a hearing to assess financial considerations of the transfer, such as how much debt would be transferred from Steelton-Highspire to Middletown, and how much state subsidy would be transferred from Steelton-Highspire to Middletown.

The county court’s determination as to financial impacts of the transfer would then go to the state Board of Education for review. The board is an entity separate from Rivera and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The state board would then make its own decision on whether to grant the Highspire petition. Either party could then choose to appeal the state board’s decision to Commonwealth Court.

Highspire students make up 17 percent of the Steelton-Highspire student population, but Highspire taxpayers provide 34 percent of the district’s overall tax base.

Allowing the transfer of Highspire students to Middletown could reduce Steelton-Highspire’s taxable revenue by about $2 million, and its state subsidy by about $1.6 million.