Pennsylvania school mergers threaten rivalries and ways of life

School districts across the country are facing steep budget shortfalls that are forcing them to consider drastic measures. Some of the most dire cases are occurring outside major cities, and in more than one rural scenario, school districts are considering joining forces to create one sustainably-sized high school rather than two smaller schools. Yet there's one glaring problem with that scenario: It's threatening to eliminate some great high school sports rivalries, and the way of life that entire communities have grown accustomed to along the way.

As brilliantly diagnosed and analyzed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Friday nights in a number of small western Pennslyvania towns could be very different sooner rather than later. While longstanding customs like the march of cheerleaders and bands into stadiums are still in place at most towns outside of Pittsburgh, one small town, Monaca, no longer has its own high school. Instead of playing for the Monaca High School Indians, teens from Monaca now attend Center Area High School, where they suit up as Center Area Warriors. The elimination from Monaca has turned the city's football stadium quiet on Friday nights and transformed video like the 2008 Monaca-Rochester game above into a historical relic.

While the threat of transformational school closures is a nationwide trend, it may be felt most acutely near Monaca in Western Pennsylvania, where the slow death of mill towns has morphed into a rapid transformation away from the rural school sports traditions ingrained in pop culture lore by movies like "All the Right Moves." Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed reducing Pennsylvania's current 500 school districts to 100 to streamline the state's educational administrative costs. One of the first ways to do that would be to replace town-based school district systems with countywide school districts, and there is little doubt that intra-county high school mergers would follow.

The Post-Gazette rattled off nine schools in Beaver County, Penn. alone that are at threat of closure of a high school merger. Because all come from towns where industries that sustained their populations have either closed or dramatically scaled back, there is reason to believe that a number could be lost within the next couple of years.

The mayor of one of those towns, Clairton's Richard Lattanzi, said the loss of fall high school football in his town would feel like losing U.S. Steel.

There's a reason for feeling high school football is so sacrosanct, too. As the Post-Gazette lays out, there are a number of key factors that have elevated football above simple sport to a true way of life in rural Pennsylvania. In smaller rural school districts all players tend to be from generational families within the towns. The football fields for schools like Clairton, Jeannette, Rochester, Aliquippa Bethlehem-Center and Brentwood are all near downtown, making them a civic center and gathering place. Multi-generational families from the same town make for a multi-generational fan base, with alumni in the area traveling back to see all the games. In turn, those fan bases tend to pass down their game day traditions like ancient oral histories, maintaining culture and bits of Americana for the next generation.

Now, all those larger social goods are imperiled by a sheer loss of population, a drastic trend that feels inescapable in areas struggling to find employers to take the place of mills and factories that once made them thriving American communities.

"The state's going to force us to merge with someone," Joe Pacelli, a former announcer for football games at Jeannette High told the Post-Gazette. "People just don't want to acknowledge that."

One of the main business owners near Pacelli couldn't even bear to think of what life would be like if that happened.

"We don't even want to think about that," Jeannette restaurant owner Tony DeNunzio Sr. told the Post-Gazette. "The town would be devastated. ...

"A lot of schools we go to, we outnumber their fans. Nearly every car in town has a Jayhawk emblem."

There may not be a solution to keep the forthcoming school change from happening, but until it does there's little question that schools in small communities across the country will cling to their high school football culture as long as they can. As the Post-Gazette learned, if their high schools are forced to close, there is one way the abandoned high school stadiums can remain vibrant.

In an odd twist, junior high and midget games played in Monaca's old stadium are drawing larger-than-expected crowds.

"Maybe people just want to go there," [Monaca Mayor John] Antoline said. "There's still football down at the stadium."

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