By Editorial Board
If someone were to run the accounts of the Montour and Sto-Rox districts through a single ledger, they would probably find the surplus accrued by Montour over recent years is just about what’s needed to fill in the financial hole threatening to swallow Sto-Rox whole.
The question is, should Montour take on that responsibility?
The Sto-Rox School Board thinks it does, apparently, having recently made moves to approach Montour’s administration about a possible merger. Describing his strategy in an interview with Gazette 2.0, Superintendent Frank Dalmas said his district could bring to the table increased student diversity in exchange for shared access to Montour’s well-endowed checkbook.
It's a noble prospect, but in the world of realpolitik, one that’s likely doomed.
While the districts haven’t yet met to discuss the move, a preliminary response issued by Montour Superintendent Christopher Stone signals what’s likely to follow:
“The Montour School District has no desire to entertain any conversations with any school districts relating to a merger. This is a matter governed by state law. Montour will have no further comment.”
During the last few budget cycles, Sto-Rox’s fund balance has plummeted to a forecasted negative of $9.2 million by this time next year. During the same timespan, Montour’s balance has grown by nearly $5 million, while its debt has shrunk and other funds have been steered toward new hires, increased programming and a new bussing fleet.
In one sense, Montour is right to look out for its own interests and lay the responsibility with the state — the body perpetuating the shameful funding system that leaves our area with one of the state’s poorest schools bumping up against one of its more affluent.
In another sense, refusing to extend a hand is a clear moral failure. Taking a “not my problem approach” sets a bad example for Montour’s own students, who may be looking for help understanding the disparities surrounding them, and it fails to recognize that both districts play into a larger common community. They should be rooting for each other.
Since its formation in 1957, Montour’s fate has been closely tied with that of Sto-Rox.
As the suburban communities of Robinson and Kennedy boomed in the 1970s and beyond, they did so at the expense of McKees Rocks and Stowe, whose upwardly mobile residents fled up the hill with the crash of the steel industry. The fortunes of the respective school districts followed the same trend.
Montour’s first supervising principal, David E. Williams, was himself a teacher at Stowe High School for 16 years before taking a position at the former Kennedy district and later overseeing its merger. Williams set a familiar pattern since replayed by countless Sto-Rox graduates and employees who went on to work at Montour, serve on its school board or send their kids there.
Years later, the Sto-Rox district built two school buildings within Montour’s geographical limits.
Today, this unusual arrangement only emphasizes the arbitrary line of separation between the two school systems.
Arbitrary though it is, this line also divides rich and poor, white and minority, a well-resourced district from a floundering district.
Though some make it through the Sto-Rox system ready to pursue college or launch right into their chosen career path, the odds are stacked against them from birth.
Pennsylvania’s lop-sided school funding formula is an insult to the foundational American idea that everyone should get the same chance to succeed as others.
Waiting for Harrisburg to step in and resolve the issues surrounding the right to an equal education isn’t the answer. The issues are long-standing and little has been done to balance the scales. Sto-Rox arriving hat in hand at the doorstep of the affluent Montour district provides a chance for neighbors to use their influence for good.
If the political will can’t be mustered to authorize a true merger, Montour officials should at least be prepared to meet with their struggling peers to show support and entertain talks of compromise. The surrounding school communities — bound by common ties — should pull together and join the cause, too.