Even the Christmas season evidently can't bring peace on Earth to the contentious Neshaminy School District, where a bitter labor dispute with the teachers' union dragged on for five years, and an uproar over the high school's Redskins mascot and student journalists' free speech made national headlines.

Now, the school board is being accused of trying to ram through a controversial consolidation plan - even of stifling parental consent by scheduling a hearing for the same time as their children's holiday concerts.

Under the plan, the sprawling Bucks County district would close three schools, build a large new elementary school, and transfer fifth graders to Neshaminy's middle schools, where enrollment has been dropping.

"You're picking the month of December, when parents are busy getting Christmas shopping done?" asked Karen Lowry, a mother of three so opposed to the plan she is thinking about sending her current fifth grader to Catholic school next year.

Compared with the dragged-out process of reaching a labor agreement, the ambitious consolidation plan has been on a fast track.

When six of the nine board members decided this year it was time to close three of the district's eight elementary schools - Lower Southampton and Oliver Heckman in Langhorne, and Samuel Everitt in Levittown - and relocate hundreds of students, the process moved swiftly. The proposal also calls for building an 800-student "mega-school" at the Tawanka site in Lower Southampton.

Scott Congdon, school board president and a proponent of the measure, said acting quickly would let Neshaminy take advantage of low interest rates for a 20-year, $55 million bond issue to construct the school, and to save on maintenance and energy costs while reducing staff positions. He said Neshaminy's history of neighborhood rivalries guaranteed some parents would be unhappy.

"It's a shame. In order to do something, people are going to be upset," Congdon said. "I couldn't sleep at night if we did nothing."

Critics have accused Congdon and his five board allies, who approved the plan Oct. 28, of acting undemocratically.

They say the decision to hold a public hearing on the school closings and bond issue, required under Pennsylvania's Act 34, Thursday night, at the same time as three middle-school holiday concerts and Middletown Township's annual open house, was just the latest affront.

An additional session was scheduled for Friday night, and the public is invited to submit written testimony until Jan. 5.

Resident Robert Sanna, a vocal opponent of the plan, said he was outraged that the board majority had rebuffed calls for a public referendum on the bond issue. He said such a vote would certainly fail, boosted by elderly residents who would oppose Neshaminy's taking on additional debt.

Sanna noted that the 2004 proposal for a new high school was voted down. He said the plan would be rejected again because "only seniors vote, and seniors don't want their taxes to go up."

Congdon suggested a vote would not be representative because turnout likely would be low.

But behind the bickering over holiday concerts and referendums, the school-consolidation controversy has also bared the deeper division within a roughly 8,500-student district that sprawls across six municipalities.

Many parents are eager to keep the compact, walkable neighborhood schools that were built largely during the baby boom of the 1950s and '60s. The search for solutions to aging buildings and shrinking enrollments has sparked intense geographic rivalry.

Parents have packed board meetings, and 1,300 people signed a petition asking for a referendum.

The nine-member board represents three districts, and the three from the Lower Southampton area - site of the proposed new school - support the plan. The six from the other two districts are divided.

The plan is all about the new Lower Southampton school, said board member Ron Rudy of Langhorne, one of the three dissenters. He and others say the board members who support the plan want to accelerate the timetable lest they fail to win reelection in the May primary.

The majority "is set on not listening to anyone," said board member Mike Morris, an opponent. "They want it, they think they have it figured out, and I don't think they do." He said the projected savings, which would initially include a reduction of just three staff positions, were minimal when compared to the student disruption.

One of the most contentious aspects of the plan is the proposed move of fifth graders to the under-capacity middle schools, which currently accommodate grades six to eight. Critics say studies have shown no academic advantage to placing fifth graders in middle school, and they worry about 10-year-olds being in the same building as students going through the more rebellious years of adolescence.

In a poll of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers, 92 percent did not think the move would be in children's best interests.

"That has parents freaking out," said Sanna, who doubted the board's assurances that fifth graders would be segregated.

Julia Natal, mother of three, including a daughter who would attend middle school under the plan, called the promised segregation "a red flag" that shows the district knows the idea is risky. She added that she knew several parents who were considering moving.

Congdon argued that fifth graders would benefit from attending middle school, saying, "It's a much more grown-up learning environment." And he downplayed concerns about the school climate for the younger kids.

"I don't think Neshaminy has cornered the market on bullies and bad kids," he said.

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@kathyboccella