MORRISVILLE — From the outside, the M.R. Reiter Elementary School looks like any other school tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood — except there are no kids on the playground, no swings on the swing set, no flag on the flagpole. It’s been closed since a boiler exploded in December.
No one was injured, but the explosion seemed to some to be another indication that the Morrisville School District needs to get out of the education business. Despite having one of the highest school tax rates in Bucks County, students learn in aging facilities and have less-than-stellar test scores to show for it.
Even school board president Bill Hellmann says tiny Morrisville, with only 825 students, is too small to have its own district.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” Hellmann said.
Some think Morrisville would be a perfect candidate for a merger under Gov. Ed Rendell’s push to save money by consolidating the state’s 500 districts into 100. The problem is that Morrisville’s nearest neighbor, the more affluent Pennsbury School District, isn’t interested.
Headquartered about 30 miles northeast of Philadelphia in Fallsington, Pennsbury has about 11,500 students and much higher SAT scores, a broader curriculum and better facilities — including two pools and a football stadium.
But Pennsbury also has problems. Its 3,400-student high school is near capacity; three of its 15 schools are striving to meet all federal educational standards; and officials are trying to close a $12 million gap in next year’s budget.
“We’re struggling as it is to try to meet the needs of our students and be responsible to our tax base,” said Pennsbury school board president Greg Lucidi.
Morrisville is a 2-square-mile borough just across the Delaware River from Trenton, N.J. Its $20 million annual school budget pays to operate a combined middle school/high school and two elementary schools, though elementary students are temporarily consolidated on one campus.
The local rubber plant and steel mill have closed, leaving its 10,000 residents with little commercial or industrial tax revenue and meager room for growth. As a result, its school tax rate is 29 percent higher than Pennsbury’s.
The Pennsbury district’s $174 million budget covers 15 schools across a large swath of Bucks County and is supported by a broad tax base, from manicured subdivisions and office parks to farmland and shopping centers.
Talk of merging the two districts goes back decades, but money, logistics and emotions have always gotten in the way.
In 1956, the Pennsylvania Economy League determined Morrisville would benefit from a merger in part because of projected financial difficulties. Those problems were evident by 1971, when then-Superintendent Paul Phillips warned that Morrisville students would be shortchanged unless the district reorganized.
“Our program will deteriorate ... because of the tremendous demands which will be placed on the schools by society for a better educational program, as well as by state regulations,” he wrote in a memo to the school board. “It cannot be provided with a small financial base which now exists in our town.”
A 1986 Morrisville study suggested sending its 7th through 12th graders to Pennsbury on a tuition basis “could be the best of all worlds.” But it never happened; Pennsbury was experiencing explosive growth at the time as developers built up farmland in its bedroom communities for Philadelphia, New York and Princeton, N.J.
In 2004, the Pennsbury board refused to participate in a merger study, leaving it unclear what costs or savings might be realized through consolidation.
Some suggest the resistance stems in part from race and class tensions. About half of Morrisville students are minority, compared with about 12 percent of Pennsbury students.
Lucidi disputes that.
“We’re not rich,” he said. “We have a diversity of students and a diversity of taxpayers in our district.”
But there are other obstacles to a merger: transportation costs, since Morrisville doesn’t use buses; teacher salaries, if lower-paid Morrisville teachers join the Pennsbury union; and concern over disparities in standardized test scores.
“Adding a whole new population of students that haven’t been through our processes could be detrimental to our scores,” Lucidi said.
Pennsbury’s average 1040 SAT score dwarfs Morrisville’s 810. But on state assessments, 74 percent of Morrisville students scored proficient or better in math compared with 79 percent of Pennsbury students; in reading, Morrisville scored 68 percent proficient to Pennsbury’s 80 percent.
Some have suggested the state could grant Pennsbury “test amnesty,” allowing it to omit Morrisville students’ scores for a given number of years, if the districts merged.
Morrisville tried to reinvent itself by building a new K-12 campus a few years ago, but taxpayer acrimony led to the plan being scrapped. Sandy Gibson, a former Morrisville board president, left town because of that and what she calls a lack of commitment to the students.
“Morrisville is never, ever going to invest in itself,” she said.
So while Pennsbury solicits bids to turn one of its 11 elementary schools into a “green” building, Morrisville may permanently close M.R. Reiter. Asbestos was dislodged when the boiler exploded.
Officials in both communities say a merger will only happen if Harrisburg forces it — and helps finance it.
State Rep. John Galloway, D-Bucks, said it’s not clear that Pennsbury would be the best fit for Morrisville, and that perhaps it’s the wrong question to be asking.
“The question is whether or not Morrisville can sustain a school district,” Galloway said. “Half the people in that town believe they can sustain a school district. The other half believe Morrisville’s in a lot of trouble.”