Red Lion school officials scrutinize $540,000 paid for empty seats at alternative school

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Red Lion school officials scrutinizing the district's budget came to a rude awakening concerning money spent to send — or, in many cases, not send — students to an alternative school.

During Thursday's board meeting, Superintendent Robert Walker said the district has paid $30,000 per seat for 30 seats — or $900,000 total annually — for students with behavioral issues at the Lancaster County-based River Rock Academy. The district, however, hasn't been using all of those seats.

Walker told the board that the school only used 12 of them last year. That would mean the district paid $540,000 for unfilled seats at the alternative school.

“There’s a huge waste of money going on at Red Lion year after year,” said one board member, Troy Engle.

New Red Lion Area School District Superintendent Dr. Robert Walker during the Red Lion Area School District’s Board of School Directors meeting at Red Lion Area Education Center in Windsor Township,Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

It's not clear how long the River Rock situation has been going on, and school officials did not respond to The York Dispatch's requests for clarification on the matter.

Red Lion school officials are mulling a budget that could result in an up to 4.5% property tax increase. On Thursday, most of the elected school board — with Engle as the lone dissenter — agreed to advance the process by advertising the proposal.

Tonja Wheeler, the district's chief financial officer, said the vote set a budget ceiling, giving the public the necessary 30 days notice before the board votes on a final budget by June 30.

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Engle, for his part, said the board needs to consider cost-cutting measures — including the money spent on River Rock. Many residents can't afford a 4.5% tax increase, he said.

He said voting to advertise the budget felt like the board was “greenlighting” raising taxes, which he didn’t think should be taken lightly with a roll call vote. He suggested they have more discussion and asked the district to find more places to cut.

Engle asked Wheeler about what he described as wasteful spending.

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Wheeler said "many of us knew what was going on" but weren't in a position to change it.

“So you can point a finger," she said, "and I will tell you that it did not happen in my office and with many of the other administrators in this facility. But I will tell you that we knew.”

However, Wheeler said there were no other similar situations, a point reiterated by fellow board member Marc Greenly.

The board will revisit the budget during its June board meetings. The proposed budget, which Wheeler said they are still looking for more cuts, can be found on the district’s website or at

Red Lion Area School District Administrative Office at Pleasant View Elementary School in Windsor Township, Friday, June 11, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

During the same meeting, the board heard a presentation by Laurel Life, a program that would offer behavioral support to students at the school using a flat fee — rather then sending the students out of the district.

Walker said such a program would help support the existing guidance counselors and provide services to children that aren't currently offered within the district.

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The superintendent said the district could cut 10 of its seats at River Rock in tandem with bringing outside support services to the schools.

“This is another layer or another item on the menu knowing all of the things that we’re experiencing right now as a district,” Walker said, adding this would be a preventative and get “behaviors under control for students who are being woefully disobedient.”

Red Lion's school board has not revisited its emergency directive concerning transgender students. School officials said they are still working on a possible public forum. No further details have been announced.

— Reach Meredith Willse at or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.