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Some residents shocked by news of potential school closure in Lower Burrell

Sharon Nealer’s jaw dropped in surprise Thursday when she heard the news that Stewart Primary School in Lower Burrell could close.

Nealer was shopping Thursday along Leechburg Road, a few blocks from the school.

“I’m shocked. I think it looks perfect the way it is,” Nealer said.

Burrell School District officials have scheduled a public hearing June 25 on whether to close Stewart, as required by law.

Nealer has lived in the neighborhood for a decade. She thinks the school fulfills its role very well.

“I’m surprised. Why close it? I just don’t see the reason why, because it’s been there for a long time and isn’t it going to overcrowd other schools?” Nealer asked.

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Joyce Hanz | TribLive

Sharon Nealer, a 10-year resident of Lower Burrell, said she was shocked to learn Stewart Elementary School might close.

But district officials cite outdated building infrastructure and declining enrollment among the reasons they are considering a closure.

Since the 2003-2004 school year, the district saw a 20 percent decrease in enrollment last year.

Stewart is the district’s oldest school, originally built in 1931, and educates approximately 260 fourth and fifth grade students. At one time it housed students from first to sixth grade.

Superintendent Shannon Wagner cited a number of problems with the building, including roof leaks, unusable rooms and “dead spaces” created by decades of renovations and reconfigurations.

Lower Burrell native John Jordan Jr., 40, who attended Stewart for five years, said Thursday he was disappointed in the district’s leadership.

“I was shocked. It just seems like they just want to tear the school down and do nothing,” Jordan said.

“They’re raising our school taxes and what’s the point? Why did they wait so long to do something? Why wait until it’s too late? I am disappointed in the leadership of the district. It seems like they do what they want.

Wagner said the district hasn’t “waited” and has funded many improvements and additions to Stewart over the years. She said the building is safe for students and staff, but is simply no longer useful.

District officials said an architectural firm estimated it would cost about $17 million to renovate Stewart.

Some parents point out that the cost is lower than the prices of the two options school officials are considering if Stewart is closed.

One option, for about $20 million, would move Stewart’s fourth grade to Bon Air and fifth grade to the district’s middle school.

The other option, for about $26 million, would be to add seven classrooms at Bon Air and keep fifth grade there.

But, Wagner points out, these two options would not stop there. They would also upgrade the heating and ventilation systems at the district’s three remaining schools — a project that district officials say must happen regardless of Stewart’s fate. If the district kept Stewart open, that $17 million renovation cost would be added to the costs of the HVAC project.

A project to upgrade the high school’s HVAC system alone, Wagner said, will cost nearly $10 million.

By combining the improvements already planned with the closure of Stewart and the addition of classrooms in Bon Air, the district could actually save money.

But that doesn’t allay residents’ concerns.

District parents Nicole and Tim Coulter live near Stewart and have a child enrolled at Bon Air Elementary School, less than a mile on Leechburg Road from Stewart.

The couple worries about what will happen to the nearly 7 acres that comprise the 76,000-square-foot school building.

“What are they going to do with this space? Will it be commercial or residential? I worry. I see all the abandoned buildings we have in Lower Burrell and some are coming back, but I still don’t want to see this abandoned,” Nicole Coulter said.

The front portion of the Stewart property along Leechburg Road is zoned for commercial use and the rear portion is zoned for residential use, according to Lower Burrell Mayor Chris Fabry.

If the district proceeds with Stewart’s closure, the building would close by fall 2025 and the property would be put up for sale, Wagner said.

Not all parents are against Stewart closing.

Kelly Smith, whose daughter is in fourth grade at Stewart, said she understands the decision to close the school.

“The school is really falling apart and the closure is necessary,” she said.

Like other parents, her biggest concern is keeping fifth graders in an elementary school and not a middle school, where they might mix with older students.

“In my opinion, they go through different stages of life that I don’t want my 10-year-old to be exposed to.”

Wagner said most teachers in the district were in favor of moving fifth grade to Bon Air and keeping middle school between sixth and eighth grades.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, without commenting directly on plans involving Stewart, said whatever decision is made, it will be complex.

“School closures and school reconfigurations are incredibly complex and difficult decisions for school boards and school administrators because they impact virtually every aspect of district operations,” said Superintendent Mackenzie Christ. head of communications for the association.

Christ said factors the district will need to consider include enrollment levels and trends, academic programs and course offerings, age and condition of school buildings, transportation, staffing and finances .

District officials said Stewart’s closure would not result in any job losses, as employees would be moved to other buildings.

Wagner said the two options that would cause Stewart to close include paving in Bon Air to provide additional parking.

Regardless, Stewart’s closure would certainly affect nearby residents.

Nevada Street resident Beth Nury has lived across the street from the school for more than 37 years.

Nury and her neighbors first heard about Stewart’s plight Wednesday while reading TribLive. Since then, the entire street has been abuzz with what Nury describes as concern over their declining property values.

“I loved having a neighborhood school and our biggest concern is that it could be anything. What if it was a commercial activity? We have so many empty storefronts right now. I don’t think we need another one,” Nury said. “Plus, the $17 million to renovate Stewart is the least expensive solution to this problem. If this will solve the problem, then do it.

Nury has three children who attend Stewart and plans to attend the public meeting in June.

“I don’t want to see this become a big commercial land or a skyscraper built there. Our property values ​​could drop,” Nury said. “It’s very quiet here except for the children playing, and that’s a wonderful thing.”