Parents push against Heckman closure, little support for Lower Southampton

The next stops on the “Road Map” for Neshaminy School District’s large-scale consolidation plan are the closures of two neighborhood schools.

On the evenings of Jan. 6 and 7, the school board hosted a pair of public hearings on closing Oliver Heckman and Lower Southampton elementary schools. During the Heckman meeting, hundreds of locals showed up to the Maple Point Middle School auditorium in opposition to the decision.

It opened with Acting Superintendent Gloria Hancock reiterating the reasoning behind this part of the plan.

Many of the school buildings in the district were built between 1950 and 1970, Hancock said, to meet the growing population of the area. During that time, families with four or five children were common and the district’s eight elementary schools were necessary to fill the need. Over the past 20 years, she continued, the average family size sunk, while the average age of district residents rose because many decided to remain in the area after their children grew up.

Also, many of the district’s buildings were determined to need renovations to meet modern educational and safety standards. The district narrowed 18 proposed scenarios to one over the past 10 years, choosing the path of consolidation for district elementary schools.

“The district determined that the most fiscally responsible and educationally sound plan would be to keep and renovate the school buildings that were in the best location and position, close three elementary schools that did not meet current needs, shift the grade configuration to fill unutilized middle schools, and to build one new elementary school,” Hancock said. “I do think this is a very sound direction.”

For many pieces of this plan, the wheels have already been set in motion.

Last spring, Samuel Everitt Elementary in Levittown was closed. The construction of the 800-student elementary school in Lower Southampton is well underway, and fifth-graders moved into the middle schools at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.

There has been some public resistance to this plan all along, and even some within the school board.

Board members Ron Rudy, Mike Morris and Robert Sanna led a series of questions following the testimony of Assistant to the Superintendent Don Harm and Damion Spahr, vice president of Reynolds Enterprises, the firm handling the building and renovation projects.

Rudy suggested that the estimated renovation costs for Heckman were bloated, and could be done for less. He, along with other board members, opposed the movement of the fifth-graders to middle schools and is still seeking an alternate solution.

“I think we’re making a decision on the fifth grade as well,” he said of the decision to close Heckman.

State Rep. Steve Santarsiero, who is currently campaigning for a U.S. Congress seat, said he was urged by citizens to speak at the meeting.

“Local schools work,” he said. “It’s important for the kids.”

Langhorne Police Chief Steve Mawhinney spoke against the plan as well. He is at the school most mornings, interacting with students, learning their names. He expressed that the neighborhood school is important for children in regard to police-community relations, something that he said would not be possible at an 800-student facility.

Dawn Abbamondi, who lives a few blocks away from Heckman, said the small school is easier on students because of the sense of community and ease of making friends.

“My kids’ closest friends are still those they met at Heckman,” she said.

Langhorne Councilwoman Kathleen Horwatt said that the school is not just educational, it’s an important piece of the Langhorne community.

“As a parent and grandparent, I never want my children to go to a building of 800 students,” she said.

Several parents also spoke about the implications of possible redistricting and increased transportation times. Overall, the meeting lasted about three hours, most of which was public comment.

The hearing on Lower Southampton Elementary the following night went more smoothly, with only a handful of locals present. Board members eased up on questioning during testimony from Harm and Spahr. Three of the four people who signed up for public comment spoke in support of the district’s plan.

Built in 1950, Lower Southampton Elementary is the oldest building still in use by the district. The new elementary school is being built just down the road, so for those students, transportation and redistricting issues are minimal.

Residents who did not attend the meetings can continue to submit written testimony to the district offices, 2001 Old Lincoln Highway in Langhorne, until Feb. 5. By law, there is a 90-day waiting period before the school board can take final action on either of the school closures. At the earliest, they can decide after the first week of April.

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