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State rejects petition to transfer Highspire students into Middletown school district; appeal filed

By Dan Miller

Posted 2/20/18

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has rejected the petition filed in August 2014 by residents of Highspire to transfer their students from Steelton-Highspire School District to Middletown Area …

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State rejects petition to transfer Highspire students into Middletown school district; appeal filed


The Pennsylvania Department of Education has rejected the petition filed in August 2014 by residents of Highspire to transfer their students from Steelton-Highspire School District to Middletown Area School District.

While the Highspire students would benefit academically from being transferred from Steelton-Highspire to Middletown, the educational benefits of the transfer are outweighed “by the negative educational impact of the proposed transfer borne by the remaining Steelton students and that also may be borne by the students in the expanded MASD (Middletown Area School District),” PDE Deputy Secretary Matthew S. Stem wrote in a report filed Feb. 2.

Stem’s report, referred to as a pre-adjudication determination, has been appealed by lawyers representing the Highspire Education Coalition, the group of Highspire residents that in 2014 first sought the transfer of 229 students living in Highspire from the Steelton-Highspire district to Middletown.

Lawyers for the coalition on Feb. 12 requested a full administrative hearing with PDE Secretary Pedro Rivera of the PDE determination in Commonwealth Court.

A hearing date has not been set, Brian Carter, a lawyer for the coalition, told the Press & Journal.

The coalition took its case to Commonwealth Court in February 2017 in an effort to compel a decision on the educational merits of the petition from PDE.

The Highspire students being transferred to Middletown would result in the property taxes that these Highspire residents pay no longer going to Steelton-Highspire, but to Middletown.

The transfer also would result in a shift of basic and special education subsidies from Steel-High to Middletown, according to Stem’s report.

“This proposed transfer not only negatively impacts those students remaining in (Steelton-Highspire), but it poses a risk to (Steelton-Highspire’s) fiscal viability,” Stem said. “(Steelton-Highspire’s) long-term finances will be weakened coupled with continued academic needs.”

In short, the Steelton-Highspire School District “could not continue to operate” if the Highspire students — as well as the property tax revenue paid by the Highspire residents — were to be transferred to Middletown.

As coalition spokesman Ken Becker noted in a statement issued through a press release, the PDE report authored by Stem backs up the coalition’s position that the Highspire students would benefit educationally from being transferred to Middletown.

“If this decision is not reversed, it will force Highspire children to remain in a school district that district officials and the department both recognize is failing academically,” Becker said.

“Three years ago Steelton-Highspire district officials admitted to the department that by the time students reach high school they are often 2.5 years below grade level. By denying the move the department is only inflicting greater educational harm on more students.”

Both school districts have consistently opposed the transfer of students sought by the Highspire coalition.

The Feb. 2 determination from PDE “was the correct decision based upon the facts and the law,” Middletown Area School District Superintendent Lori Suski told the Press & Journal in an email.

“MASD expressed its opposition to this proposed transfer when the (coalition) initiated its petition three and one-half years ago,” Suski wrote. “During that time period, (Middletown) fully cooperated with the department’s extensive review of this petition by responding to all of its inquiries for information, data, and records, as well as making its school facilities available for inspection. (Stem’s) 257 findings of fact reflect the volume of information provided by (Middletown) and the other parties. (Middletown) believes that the deputy secretary’s determination is thoughtful, comprehensive and well-reasoned.”

“It is our preference that this litigation be brought to an end, so (Middletown) may continue to focus its attention and resources on serving the K-12 educational needs of Middletown and Royalton boroughs and Lower Swatara Township,” Suski concluded.

Steelton-Highspire Superintendent Travis Waters did not return requests for comment.

Stem in his report found that Middletown students “consistently achieved higher standardized test scores on the SAT” than Steel-High students, and that “a higher percentage” of Middletown students achieved proficiency or above in statewide assessments.

Student growth scores as measured by the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System “underscore the greater annual progress being demonstrated by” Middletown students, compared to those in Steelton-Highspire, Stem noted, adding that Middletown students met the PVAAS growth standard in 83.3 percent of their calculation points from 2013 to 2015, compared to 27.6 percent for Steelton-Highspire during the same three-year period.

Middletown reported higher graduation rates in 2014-15 than Steelton-Highspire, and has “consistently” experienced lower truancy rates, Stem wrote.

The percentage of Middletown students graduating and going on to post-secondary education “consistently exceeded” that of Steelton-Highspire students.

In other respects the two districts are more equal, Stem pointed out. Both districts offer “a comparable range of academic courses and educational programs that accommodate students of various abilities and interests,” he wrote. “Both districts value parental involvement and have developed a communication infrastructure to connect with parents.”

But on the whole, “students residing within Highspire would benefit educationally from transferring from (Steelton-Highspire) as the review evidenced that (MIddletown district) students demonstrate better academic results,” Stem concluded.

However, he went on to say that both the Middletown and Steelton-Highspire districts are relatively small.

As a result, the proposed transfer would have a “negative educational impact” upon not just the students that would remain in the Steelton-Highspire district, but upon the other students that attend Middletown district.

Middletown already has staffing and capacity issues, and the transfer of Highspire students would lead to the district “increasing class sizes, hiring more professional and/or remedial staff, and reconfiguring its” current elementary schools in order to absorb the influx, Stem pointed out.

“Capacity issues at the elementary level would present challenges and increased class sizes may have a negative impact” on  Middletown students.

The transfer of Highspire students would lead to low enrollment numbers and teaching staff reductions that would threaten the electives and advanced courses offered by Steelton-Highspire, Stem added.

“An already small-sized (Steelton-Highspire) would be further reduced to a total student enrollment closer to 1,000 students, making it difficult to recoup any cost savings from the transfer of students to” Middletown.

Laura Hayes contributed to this story.