HARRISBURG – The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has backed a community’s efforts to secede from its school district and join another one.
Residents of the Highspire borough want to leave the Steelton-Highspire School District and join the Middletown School District, which they say has better schools.
A Dauphin County judge last year denied Highspire’s petition to change school districts, citing a finding by Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera that the loss of students and revenue would be financially devastating to the Steelton-Highspire district. The school system would lose $1.6 million in tax revenue if the Highspire students left, Rivera said.
Rivera also noted that Middleton elementary schools are already close to capacity, and that adding Highspire students would increase class size further.
On March 2, President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt and the Commonwealth Court reversed the Dauphin County judge's January 2019 decision, ruling the financial projections are “conjectural" and stating there is no evidence that any loss in tax revenue would lower the educational opportunities for the remaining students.
The Commonwealth Court added that Rivera did not take into account the cost savings from a reduction in enrollment in the Steelton-Highspire district. However, Rivera did find that “the transfer has educational merit for Highspire students, and this was based on objective and historical data."
Rivera “refused Highspire students the opportunity for better academic results on financial grounds,” the appeals court ruling concluded.
The Steelton-Highspire School District is expected to struggle financially, even if the Highspire students stay, the ruling noted. “Stated otherwise, the educational opportunity denied Highsphire students will not solve the district’s financial challenges,” the court said.
It sent the case back to the trial court to create an independent school district for Highspire. That would enable the transfer of the approximately 276 Highspire students to Middleton, which has about 2,300 students.
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania case number 242 C.D. 2019