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Hard Times

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From the 1st to the 6th grade, James J. Tortorice learned his reading, writing, and arithmetic in a one-room schoolhouse warmed by a pot-bellied stove and presided over by Miss Weigle, the teacher he shared with eight grades of students.

But his daddy, who started mining coal at 14, wanted a better life for James and his four brothers and sisters, and he believed that that could best be achieved with a sound education.

To pursue his dream, he packed up the family in 1934 and journeyed to Clairton, Pa., from the mining hamlet of Calamity Hollow, the next county over. "We moved to Clairton because it had a terrific reputation,'' recounts Tortorice from his perch at the lunch counter at the New St. Clair Restaurant in Clairton.

The reputation was well deserved, opines Tortorice, who graduated from Clairton High School in 1941, went off to the Navy, and returned after World War II to open a barber shop.

But these days, the barber who turned house painter after the Beatles invaded the United States in the 60's wouldn't give two plugs for the school system that his father moved hearth and home for his children to attend. "They didn't manage the money right over there,'' Tortorice charges, pointing to the school one street over. "Living beyond their means is what it is.''

Few folks would quarrel with the notion that the Clairton school district has been living beyond its means in recent years, but most believe that it has nothing to do with financial mismanagement.

Clairton, like dozens of other small rust-belt districts in Pennsylvania and hundreds elsewhere in the nation, has lost its industrial tax base. And after years of struggling to stay afloat, it may be on the verge of taking its last gasp. Without outside assistance, the school district will run out of money in March, officials say, and it could default on bonds it sold a decade ago to stave off a previous financial crisis.

As it is, the teaching force has been cut, and students are stuffed into classrooms--one senior tells of a physical-education class with 100 students--while other courses have been eliminated altogether.

Despite its troubles, the Clairton district has held up remarkably well--a tribute to the dedication and creativity of the staff, community members say. It boasts a dropout rate of less than 1 percent and daily attendance of 99 percent. The district has also made a new commitment to the youngest members of the community. Through a series of grants and cooperative arrangements with other agencies, it now provides services to children from the time they are born until age 4, and, of course, beyond.

Yet, its students manage only a combined score on the S.A.T. of 780, well below the national average of 902.

School officials can feel the energy slipping away.

Once, though, the children of Clairton had every opportunity extended to them.

In the 1960's, Felix A. Fusco, today the president of the school board, could choose from four foreign languages and all sorts of advanced-placement science and mathematics courses. His peers could go out for baseball, basketball, football, tennis, golf, hockey, swimming, wrestling, and track. The school even had a ski club. And what the school system didn't offer, community recreation programs did.

Those were the last of "the Glory Years.''

Nestled in the hills and valleys of the Appalachian plateau on the banks of the Monongahela River, Clairton is quaint, almost picturesque. Prim frame and brick houses with trim lawns and tidy flower beds are anchored on sloping lots. From certain spots, the city offers majestic panoramas of rooftops, church spires, and the surrounding countryside.

But the scene, in many respects, is illusory. Here, some 15 miles south of Pittsburgh, is an urban community with many of the same problems as a big city. Buildings are boarded up, and some of the businesses that are still up and running have a moldy air about them. Outside rundown housing projects, young men congregate in midday, warily watching the cars that drive by.

And from the basketball court that serves as a parking lot at the edge of the Clairton Education Center, school officials point to the rear of buildings only two blocks away where just about any drug can be had for the right price.

The urban nature of the community becomes apparent in sometimes surprising ways.

On school field trips to a 55-acre wildlife habitat that U.S. Steel Clairton Works has established on the far side of the Monongahela, young girls show up in frilly dresses, and boys and girls bring money to buy soda and potato chips, says William C. Graeser, the company's senior environmental-control engineer.

"Even though this area is kind of rural, a lot of these kids had never been in a woods before,'' Graeser says.

Residents count back several generations in their family to the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who worked in the steel mill or prospered from businesses the mill's economy supported.

And while some left Clairton behind when they reached adulthood, others tried their wings but came back to settle down and raise their own families here. But there is much doubt that their children will have that kind of choice.

Clairton began as an agricultural settlement. Around the mid-19th century, though, coal, clay, and shale were discovered, and the economics of the region shifted to mining and, shortly thereafter, to manufacturing.

In 1893, the industry that would lead the town to prosperity arrived. The Morris & Bailey Steel Company opened, followed in 1901 by the St. Clair Steel Company. U.S. Steel Corporation acquired the St. Clair plant in 1904 and has operated it ever since.

The tiny community grew alongside the steel mill and coke works, more than doubling in population from 4,434 in 1910 to 10,777 in 1920. By 1947, the population had grown to 21,000, and it peaked at about 25,000 in the 1950's.

Clairton's fortunes were hitched to the steel industry, and it thrived. In its heyday after World War II, more than 300 commercial establishments had set up shop in this 2.7-square-mile city.

The economy supported grocery stores, department stores, clothing shops, at least a dozen auto dealerships, four movie theaters, and fashionable dining-and-dancing establishments. Lots of taverns and hotels also opened to cater to the men whose jobs in the mill were tough, dirty, and dangerous.

The mill, of course, also attracted individuals that the locals would just as soon had stayed away, as noted in an informal history compiled for the city's silver anniversary in 1947:

"With the construction of the coke works and the importation of laborers from many sections of the country, there came also those who lived by craft without work, so that there were gambling houses of one kind or another and were of more questionable character operated under the guise of 'coffee house' and 'boarding house' until a prominent magazine, making a survey concluded that Blair [a neighborhood] was the wildest spot in the U.S.''

Clairton's schools drew students from a half-dozen surrounding communities that had none of their own. The public school population swelled to some 4,500 students, with 300 to 400 seniors graduating annually. Now, it is 1,100.

As 2:30 P.M. approaches, cars are lined up and down Waddell Avenue waiting to pick up students. At one time, school buses performed this task, but the district's transportation services fell victim to budget cuts. As the buzzer sounds the end of the school day, students spill out the doors of the red-brick Clairton Education Center.

"Good afternoon,'' soothes the voice over the public address system that flows through the building and into the neighborhood. "On Friday, all juniors will report to the auditorium to nominate senior-class officers. Honey Bear practice is today after school in the gym. Congratulations, Junior High Bears [they won their football game 40-0]. Casual day is tomorrow. Please wear your favorite sweatshirt and jeans. The following students report for detention tomorrow at 7:15 in the gym. ... Thank you and have a nice evening.''

The voice belongs to Linda Hill, the secretary to Clairton's middle and high schools and as much a product of the city and its schools as anyone in the community. Her grandparents moved to Clairton in 1918. Her grandfather, who had played the organ in movie houses before the talkies took over, got a job in the mill. Her mother graduated from Clairton High in 1940.

Her husband, Dan, who was born in the house across the street from where Hill has lived since coming home from the hospital, is a retired teacher, counselor, and basketball coach for the school. Her daughter, Dawn, graduated from Clairton in 1986; her son, Stephen, in 1991. And a granddaughter, Kaitlyn, attends kindergarten in the building.

On the walls of the school office are old framed photos--one of the Steel Valley champions of 1955--that Hill retrieved from rummaging in the basement of the building. Another displays the school's first four graduating classes, 1919 to 1922; the young women sport large sailor bows, and the young men are decked out in suits and ties.

Through the 9th grade, Hill attended Walnut Avenue School in the Wilson section of town. A huge bell hung in the school, and when it would ring in the morning, it was her signal to race down the hill.

During high school, she worked for the school newspaper and yearbook and belonged to the pep club. "We had pep rallies that would take the roof off of this school,'' Hill, a portrait of boundless energy and enthusiasm, recalls.

Not that life was entirely idyllic. Growing up during the Cold War, she remembers worrying about the Soviets. "If they're going to bomb this country,'' she remembers thinking, "they're going to target Clairton because of the steelmaking.''

She also remembers the pollution. Of course, in those days, most people didn't think much about it, or necessarily even link it to the huge industry that supported their community. "The river was black when I was a kid. If you slept out, you would have fine soot all over your face,'' Hills recalls.

After graduation, she set out to explore the world, heading for Washington, where she lived with an aunt and uncle. After a few months, she grew homesick and returned to Clairton. In 1974, she got a job with the Clairton schools and has been in the system ever since. "I was thrilled; I couldn't believe that was happening, because I had such high regard for Clairton High School,'' she says. "I still feel I'm honored to work here after 20 years.''

She knows only too well all the troubles that have befallen her beloved city and schools in the interim, but she believes they can be resolved. "It's a real strange thing about Clairton,'' she muses. "It has a magic that can't be destroyed.''

John F. Ogurchak grew up in Clairton at a time when everyone knew everyone else and when families were, by and large, intact.

"Not that it was utopia,'' says Ogurchak, the district's director of federal programs, staff development, and curriculum. "But it was more like the Norman Rockwell scenes--mom, dad, kids, and the dog.''

His father worked in the mill, and, during one summer break from college, he did, too. "It was very good incentive not to go back,'' Ogurchak says.

After college, he returned to Clairton to teach. In those days, he says, there was an unwritten rule that school boards in Pennsylvania would only hire local residents.

But even though the mill did not hold the attraction for all the men of his generation that it had for those before them, it still held out promise for some. In Ogurchak's 10th year of teaching, a former student showed him his pay stub from USX, where he had been working as a laborer less than a year. "He made more money than I did,'' Ogurchak says. "I had 10 years in the school system and a master's degree.''

Lighted up at night like an amusement park, U.S. Steel Clairton Works has given this community a bumpy rollercoaster ride over the past nine decades--from exhilaration to despair and back.

The plant property winds all along the three-mile stretch of the Monongahela River in Clairton, although several parcels have been sold off over the years. Railroad tracks crisscross the 400-acre compound, and trucks rattle up and down the internal network of roads as well as along State Street, the route that parallels the industrial site and the river.

Foliage sprouts from the once-barren hillside across the river from the mill. The tall stacks in the mill yards spew forth steam rather than smoke and soot, as they did when a national magazine proclaimed Clairton one of the most polluted cities in America. It was not until the early 1980's that millions of dollars in environmental safeguards were installed.

During World War II, Clairton Works employed as many as 7,000 people to help the war effort. In the 1950's, the mill returned to a more typical peacetime workforce of 4,800 employees to operate its three blast furnaces and 10 open hearths.

By the early 1980's, the steel industry bottomed out in the United States. In the Mon Valley alone, an estimated 50,000 people lost their jobs. Clairton Works even closed its doors for several months in 1982.

Today, the steelmaking operations have ceased at the plant, but it still produces coke--40 percent of the world's supply, as a matter of fact, creating jobs for about 1,700 employees.

As the mill went, so went the rest of the local economy. On Clairton Hill, the hotels and dining rooms are abandoned, the department stores are long gone, and the movie theaters are silent. Adorned with beautiful frescoes, the Colonial, which played horror flicks, is in danger of being torn down because of the potential peril to passers-by of falling debris.

Some businesses have weathered the economic downturn--Skapik's, a clothier; C.W. Murphy, the five-and-dime; and Grisnik's Bakery. But the bakery, established in 1910, is only open on Wednesdays and Fridays. The public library is open from Monday to Thursday.

Near the mill, commercial activity has all but been obliterated in the Blair section. The neon signs on the taverns up and down State Street no longer glow; the doors are chained and padlocked.

The Wilson end of the street has endured better. Although it is no longer the vibrant retail area it once was, only one building is vacant.

By 1990, the city's population had fallen to 9,656. Left behind were high rates of poverty, double-digit unemployment, and a substantial older population. "We lost our economic base,'' says Wendy H. Laney, the city manager. "In some communities, you can say it was mismanagement or lack of foresight. Here, it was pure economics.''

Only 10 years ago, more than half of Clairton's taxes were derived from the mill. These days, revenue from the mill makes up only 12 percent of the city's taxes.

Pennsylvania declared Clairton a distressed city in 1988 and placed it under a state recovery plan. For a while, it could not even provide the most basic services. From 1985 until this year, Clairton had no police force, relying instead on the state police.

Laney, who arrived in town in 1990, would drive around on her lunch hour to familiarize herself with the city. If she stopped in her car in some areas, people would walk up to her window and ask if she wanted to buy drugs. "I couldn't believe it was so open and obvious,'' she says. "You don't see that now.''

Some believe Clairton has a future as a bedroom community for Pittsburgh. Its housing stock is downright cheap, with most houses selling for less than $40,000.

At this point, though, accessibility is a problem. Dependent on winding two-lane roads to reach major highways, Clairton is somewhat isolated and overlooked. The state plans to build an expressway in the Mon Valley. But the city council, against the advice of Laney, rejected a resolution asking the state to route it through the town.

The other major obstacle to attracting commuters is the uncertain future of the school system. Last March, the state declared the school district in distress when it could not pay its bills, and an Allegheny County court appointed a three-member panel of outsiders to run the policymaking and budgetary affairs of the schools. The action marked the second time in 10 years that the state had seized control of the schools.

The first board of control closed down the three remaining elementary schools, renovated the combination high school/junior high, and consolidated them under one roof.

In doing so, it created a $23 million debt. The district owes $795,000 on the bond this year, but, beginning next year, annual balloon payments of $1.8 million kick in until 2004.

In hindsight, lots of residents question the debt that was incurred, but the decision seemed to be the right one at the time. "The building was literally falling apart,'' says F. Charles Spence, a parent and local businessman. "The various elementary schools were in horrendous shape.''

One has turned into a local eyesore with all of its windows broken out. But the district cannot afford to raze it because to do so would require the prohibitively expensive removal of asbestos.

In addition to consolidating schools, the first state-appointed board reduced staff and eliminated supplemental contracts. Consequently, when the current crisis hit, there was little left to cut, says Fusco, the elected school board president.

"I knew that, as board president, something had to be done,'' says Fusco, who traveled to Harrisburg numerous times at his own expense to plead for help. "I also knew that, in this particular circumstance, a board of control would not do.''

But, having no other option, the state education department ordered the appointment of a second control board, which has, for the most part, vindicated the elected board.

The state, Fusco says, "miscalculated what the solution would be.''

Not everyone in town, however, believes that school officials are blameless. James Martell, a former school board member who will return to the board in December, says that Superintendent Carmen A. Sarnicola did little to curtail spending in spite of the legitimate budget problems stemming from the eroded tax base and a change in special-education funding. If officials had watched the budget better, "Clairton would definitely have money problems,'' Martell says, "but they wouldn't be the magnitude they are right now.''

Sarnicola, who came to Clairton five years ago, says that simply is not the case. "Many of the new programs that we have put in in the last five years were done with creative financing,'' says the superintendent, citing grants the district sought from the federal and state governments and foundations.

What precipitated the immediate crisis, however, was special education. "That is what threw them into bankruptcy,'' says Linda L. Croushore, the executive director of the Mon Valley Education Consortium, an organization that raises money and plots school-improvement strategies.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which provided schooling for most of the district's special-education students, threatened to turn away the buses carrying the children if the district did not pay its long-overdue bill.

Faced with financial difficulties of its own, the state had changed its special-education formula in 1991 from reimbursing actual expenses to refunding on the basis of a state average. As a result, districts with many special-education students must offset actual costs with their own money, while districts with fewer such students can use the extra money for gifted programs and the like.

The state estimates that 15 percent of a district's population requires special-education services. One-fourth of Clairton's students require special education, in large part as a result of the problems associated with poverty. The state figures 1 percent of the school population is severely disabled. Eight percent of Clairton's students are severely disabled.

The cost to Clairton to educate its special-education students this past year was $1,465,000. The state reimbursed the district $330,000.

Just to crawl out of that one financial hole, the district would have had to raise its property taxes 55 mills because property values are so low that a 1-mill increase in Clairton produces only $20,000.

"The special-ed. funding is totally unfair,'' says Pat Risha, the principal of the Clairton Education Center.

The board of control prepared a budget that eliminated kindergarten for 4-year-olds, advanced-placement courses, calculus, third- and fourth-year Spanish and French, vocational education, athletics, and transportation services. It also brought special education back into the local school for almost all but the most severely disabled students.

But after parent and teacher protests and candlelight vigils last spring and summer, Dean R. Steinhart, the president of the board of control and an employee of the state education department, could not get another member of the board to second his motion to pass the $8.3 million budget.

Two weeks later, however, the board passed a budget that was almost identical.

A federal grant restored the kindergarten program for younger children, and the board of control eventually paid the district's bill to the Steel Valley Area Vocational-Technical School, guaranteeing training at least for the remainder of this year.

Still, the budget carries over a $2.3 million deficit from the previous year, which the board of control intends to deal with through a five-year plan it is now developing.

"Some of the things we had to do, they could not have done locally because they would have been tarred and feathered,'' Steinhart says. "We took a lot of heat the local board could not tolerate.''

A good measure of that heat came from the black community. While the population of Clairton itself is only one-fourth black, black children make up 45 percent of the district's enrollment.

Burrell A. Brown grew up in that community. Until the 5th grade, he lived in Blair Heights, a public-housing project built to house mill workers. "To me, Blair Heights makes real good sense of the importance of education and place discrimination,'' he says. "Education offers the only possible way out.''

A mill worker, Brown's father died when Brown was 12. His mother worked for a lawyer who both motivated and helped him.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in education, he returned to Clairton and taught alegebra, physics, and senior science at the high school. He moved on to the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a law degree and a master's degree in business administration.

When he and his wife were ready to buy a house, though, he wanted to move back to Clairton. "It was my home,'' Brown says. "My relatives were here. I don't think I seriously thought of living anywhere else.''

When Brown learned of the proposed cuts to the school program, he was concerned, especially for black children, who he feared would be disproportionately hurt by the losses of the kindergarten for 4-year-olds and of the sports programs. "Athletics often represents the only thing those kids go to school for,'' says Brown, a former president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It represents the only way those kids can go on to higher education.''

Brown thinks the inequities in the cuts were more oversights than deliberate attempts to undermine the black community.

But he, along with many others, believes there is another inequity that is shortchanging children of all races and ethnicities who happen to live on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. He calls it "place'' discrimination: "If you were lucky enough to be born three miles east of here, you can have advanced-placement courses and transportation and athletics and all those things you need. If you were born in Clairton, then you have to suffer a poorer education system that is going to impact on you for the rest of your life and that is plain old discrimination.''

West Jefferson Hills, the district next door to Clairton, has a large shopping mall, among many other commercial properties. Each mill of tax there generates $128,357.

The difference in property values is most evident along Bickerton Drive. On the Jefferson Borough side, a brick house sells for $100,000; a somewhat smaller and more modest house on the Clairton side goes for $40,000.

Like people everywhere, F. Charles Spence was busy. His days were filled up running his family insurance company and helping his wife rear two young children. "I had never been involved in anything in my life,'' he says from his office in the Wilson section.

Through a program run by a Pittsburgh civic group, he, Brown, and other members of the community formed the Clairton Leadership Task Force with the goals of improving education and recreation and reducing drugs and crime, as well as infusing an entrenched power structure with fresh blood. "Now I'm never home for dinner,'' says Spence, only half in jest.

He is chairman of the education task force, which tries to educate parents about what goes on in the schools and to get them involved.

He has been stunned by the way people have responded by stepping forward, attending meetings, going into schools for the first time since enrolling their children or since they themselves were students.

Through such activism, they have found some small measure of hope. When the state took control of the schools a decade ago, "we felt like we were the only people in the universe to have that sort of problem,'' Spence says. "This might be the first, but there is a whole list of districts in jeopardy] right behind you.''

In a sense, Spence also views the activism as an indication that the city is shedding the last vestiges of what he calls "the mill mentality''--the idea that, after all these years, the mill will experience a resurgence and restore the city to its glory years. And that all it will take to guarantee a high-paying job is a high school diploma.

But traces of that mentality do remain. His 10-year-old son smuggles books to a classmate because the youngster's father forbids him to bring books into the house.

Inside a red-brick building at the U.S. Steel compound, the interwoven time line of the community courses along. Mary Kemp, who recently celebrated her 50th anniversary at the plant, graciously entertains a visitor until her boss is free.

She and her boss, the general manager of the largest coke works in the Western hemisphere, even had the same English teacher--though clearly at different times.

Wearing a polo shirt and cotton trousers, George Weber relaxes with a cigar in his wood-paneled office.

People throughout Clairton speak of Weber with pride. The widespread feeling is that, if anyone can keep the schools and the city afloat--at least until the state assumes more financial responsibility--it is this hometown boy made good.

But unlike others in Clairton, Weber brushes aside any romantic view of his hometown as easily as he tamps away the ash on his cigar.

From the time he was a youngster, he knew he wanted to be the general manager of the Clairton Works, where his father worked for 48 years. But no, he never wanted to live in the mansion at the top of Clairton Hill that was reserved for the mill boss. "It was already pretty run down,'' he says.

Weber started at the bottom. On summer breaks from Rutgers University in New Jersey, he worked as a laborer at the mill. In 1979, USX sent him to Utah and then to Gary, Ind. In 1987, he returned to Clairton.

His most pressing civic endeavor of the moment is the Clairton Bear Academic Athletic Association Inc., a nonprofit group he is chairing to raise money for the school's athletic programs and for students to take academic courses at the community college that are no longer available at the high school.

So far, though, the group has raised only about one-tenth of the $250,000 it estimates it needs.

The program cuts unleashed a flood of creativity in the school district. It made arrangements for students denied advanced-placement courses to attend the community college and receive credits toward both their high school diplomas and college degrees.

Because there is no money for programs for gifted students, the district has custom designed programs for students like Elizabeth Szarejko, a senior and the likely valedictorian of her class. She has had internships with the U.S. Bureau of Mines and currently interns at the U.S. Steel facility.

The district also brought its special-education classes in house and hired new teachers for the first time in a long while, half of them black.

Lisa Lester, one of the new teachers, wears a big Clairton class ring on her finger. "I wanted it big to remind me how much I hated Clairton High School; I guess I grew up,'' she laughs.

A lifelong resident, Lester is afflicted with Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, which causes the muscles to atrophy.

Her feelings of anger about the district developed during the 5th grade when she was forced to change schools. She found the new school had too many physical barriers, so she ended up at home for half a year, she says, with a tutor who did not show up half the time.

The following year, she was sent to the Mon Valley School for Exceptional Children.

In 1979, the district started mainstreaming students, and she was sent back to Clairton High School. "It was a shock to be dumped back into the schools,'' she recalls. "I hated high school. I would do anything I could to stay home.''

But there were those who supported her as well. "A lot of wonderful people encouraged me when a lot of other people said, 'She can't, she can't, she can't.'''

She went on to Seton Hill College in Greensburg, Pa., and received a bachelor's degree in management and then to Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania for a master's in education.

"The one thing children can't do in my classroom is say 'I can't,''' Lester says.

The district's use of innovative ways to circumvent some of its problems would not have worked, community members and education officials say, without the commitment and dedication of its staff. The local teachers' union agreed to work six periods a day, instead of five, enabling the district to hire fewer replacements for teachers who took advantage of early-retirement incentives offered by the state. In return, teachers' salaries are frozen this year. Although they are supposed to receive 4 percent increases each of the next two years, no one knows where the money will come from.

In another case, an English teacher refused to stop teaching an advanced class, so she prepared two lesson plans and divided her classroom in half.

"Nobody works to the contract,'' one school official says.

But all of these efforts to solve the school district's problems--community activism, nonprofit fund-raising, and educational ingenuity--are short-term solutions at best.

"The time for Band-Aids is over,'' says Fusco, the school board president. "We need to find a cure for the problem.''

Merger is the first word to fall from everyone's lips. But, to most Clairton residents, a merger with a nearby district is no solution.

"There are no bidding wars going on right now as to who gets Clairton,'' George Weber says.

A few, such as James Tortorice, favor it, viewing merger as tit for tat "When we went to school, we took their kids,'' he says.

At this point, the state cannot force mergers, but, even if it could, community members say there are too many impediments--not the least of which are the district's indebtedness and race and class.

Clairton's schools are 45 percent black; in West Jefferson schools, fewer than 3 percent of students are black. Other nearby districts have similar demographics, and the Clairton residents fear their children would be treated unfairly, if not for their race then for their lower socioeconomic standing.

"Clairton has a bad rep,'' Lisa Lester says. "A lot of people in surrounding communities don't know us. They don't know anything about us.''

School doors in the city are locked during the day, but there are no other signs of trouble--not so much as a swirl of graffiti.

"This is probably, for an inner-city school, the safest school in the commonwealth,'' says Risha, the district's principal. "We don't have metal detectors; we don't have security in the building; we don't have teachers on hall duty.''

The students attribute the racial harmony to a lifetime of knowing one another. "We've grown up together,'' Elizabeth Szarejko says. "We don't see a black person and say, 'Oh my God.'''

"If people would look beyond what they hear, they would see that we're a model in getting along,'' says Sarah Sporio, a senior.

Fusco believes the first step toward fixing the district's financial problems is for the state to change its special-education formula. "If that alone were changed, we would be fiscally sound and [could] provide a good basic education, if not all the extras,'' the school board president says.

Another solution that Fusco and others advocate is the consolidation of administrative and support services with nearby districts. Students, however, would stay in their own schools.

But while those remedies would save money, the real solution that nearly all of those familiar with Clairton's problems point to is the least palatable politically--some form of statewide finance equity.

Earlier this year, at the behest of State Rep. Ronald Cowell, the chairman of the House education committee, the National Conference of State Legislatures prepared an equity study for the state.

Lawmakers, for the most part, rejected the study. But they did allocate an additional $100 million in funds for the poorer districts in the state. Clairton received $180,000.

Cowell advocates a combination of approaches to help financially strapped school districts--local tax reform, changes in special-education funding, a revamped state-aid formula, consolidation of services, and a revision of the law that authorizes the state to take control of school districts.

"Tax reform, I don't think, will help Clairton,'' Cowell says. "There is not much of a tax base no matter what we allow them to tax. For Clairton and like districts, we need a state school-finance system that treats these poorest districts more fairly.''

Cowell, who brought his legislative committee to Clairton for a hearing in September, is well aware of the uphill political fight that would be necessary to shift funds around the state. But he also notes that the issue is getting more lawmakers' attention as more districts begin to succumb to an eroding tax base.

Between five and eight districts are in imminent danger of bankruptcy. Many more apparently are not far behind.

"If things would continue as they are, in the next two years, we would probably have 40 distressed districts,'' says Dawson Detwiler, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.

Clairton school officials are unwilling to wait for the legislature to act. The district is one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the small and rural schools' group on behalf of some 200 districts statewide. The suit claims the state violates the constitutional provision that "Pennsylvania shall provide a thorough and efficient education'' to all children.

In neighboring New Jersey, the constitutional language is very similar, leading that state's supreme court to order state officials to revise the school-aid formula and provide large new sums of money to poor districts.

The roots go deep here in Clairton. But the way things are today, most residents doubt that that strong commitment to the community can continue. While Burrell Brown, Linda Hill, and George Weber came back, the Class of 1994 probably won't go home again except, perhaps, to visit.

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