Scotland School supporters still hopeful

August 19, 2009

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Supporters of Scotland School for Veterans' Children are holding onto their cause and their hope, despite comparing the school's empty campus to a ghost town.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and actor/comedian Bill Cosby held a press event in the Capitol rotunda on Wednesday to stress the importance of funding education in the state's 2009-10 budget, which was supposed to be passed 50 days ago. Seated directly in front of the podium were several Scotland School advocates, calmly listening to the governor, who proposed closing the school to save $13.5 million a year.

Rendell and Cosby's message about not cutting education applies as much to Scotland School as any other, reading specialist Jean Vargas said.

"We have seen first-hand what it means," said Angus Hamilton, a retired Scotland School teacher and principal.

Rendell, a Democrat, suggested closing the boarding school in his February budget address. Thirty-two students in the Class of 2009 graduated in June and the 114-year-old school's doors were locked. Now Scotland School's future remains tangled in the state's budget impasse.


"Until the budget is passed, we're in limbo," Hamilton said.

"There's still hope it'll be partially funded," said Jim Gemmell, who retired from Scotland School after 31 years teaching.

Pennsylvania War Veterans Council President Larry Holman said he received an e-mail from state Rep. Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, who serves on the six-member conference committee charged with negotiating budget proposals. Smith said in the e-mail that he favors House Bill 1416's allocation of $7 million for Scotland School.

The school would have fewer staff members and students because of people making other plans for 2009-10, Holman said. It could "muddle along" on $7 million, using the year to address some of the issues mentioned by critics, he said.

His optimism regarding funding is deflated by the legislators' failure to pass a budget by June 30.

"It's hard to have hope with people who didn't do their jobs," Holman said.

State Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin/Adams/York, met with representatives from the governor's and adjutant general's offices this week to explore how to re-establish Scotland School as entirely federally funded. If it happened, the school would be opened to relatives of veterans from any state, not just Pennsylvania.

Alloway looked up from the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon and waved to 20 Scotland School supporters sitting in the gallery above. Many of the supporters, who were wearing red shirts with "Save our School" or "Scotland," said they travel to the Capitol once a week. Others make the trip every time the House or Senate are in session.

"It seems like the majority of (state leaders) are a little bit uncomfortable by our visits," Holman said.

Mary Waldt, whose husband, Gran, graduated from Scotland School in 1941, joined a few other supporters in approaching Rendell in the cafeteria recently. She says Rendell told them he can't justify Scotland School remaining open because of its test scores.

Vargas said the 2008-09 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores were higher than in past years. The children enrolling in the school often come from difficult backgrounds, including tough Philadelphia neighborhoods.

"These are kids who were not successful in other schools," she said, saying they make huge gains in Scotland School.

Gran Waldt, 87, cried as he told a Herald-Mail reporter about entering Scotland School with "nothing" and leaving with "everything" when he graduated. Waldt's family fell apart after World War I and the then 10-year-old found that Scotland School became his home.

"Scotland School was my past, it's my present and it's my future," Waldt said, saying he's been in Harrisburg "since Day One" of the funding fight. He described his story as just one of 10,000 from the alumni.

Waldt's mentor at Scotland School told him to do for others what the institution had done for him.

"That's what I've based my life on," he said.

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