State education budget hits neediest school districts the hardest
Mary Niederberger Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Protesters set up a lemonade stand in Allegheny Commons on the North Side to protest tax loopholes for large corporations such as General Electric and Exxon Mobil They claimed to be selling 10000 lemonade to make up the shortfall in the Pittsburgh Public Schools budget Actually they were giving it away to raise awareness Prez Johnson center gets a cup of lemonade and talks with Ricky Torres 10 second from right and his cousin Allie Wingold also 10 far right who were staffing the stand
The deep education cuts in the final state budget mean tough measures for school districts across the state but are devastating to poor school districts, many education leaders say.
Though the budget passed June 30 cut $900 million for 2011-2012 instead of the $1 billion proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett, it represents a dramatic drop and hits financially pressed districts hardest because they were most dependent on state funds.
Many of those districts had to reduce staff significantly either through attrition, furloughs or a combination and most lost their after-school and summer tutoring programs aimed at improving student achievement and scores on the mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.
For students, it will mean larger class sizes, fewer program options and in some cases, fees for participating in sports and activities.
For taxpayers, it will mean higher real estate taxes as some local districts were forced to raise local taxes to make up for the loss of state funding.
For teachers who were furloughed, it means financial hardship and the potential loss of profession.
Statewide, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, estimates that 3,000 of its members were furloughed and another 2,000 positions in its districts were eliminated and not filled. Spokesman David Broderic said those numbers could grow as more locals report to the state organization.
In Allegheny County, based on PSEA figures and news accounts from school board meetings, it appears about 262 teachers have been furloughed from the 42 suburban public school districts, vocational-technical schools and Allegheny Intermediate Unit. Districts are still tinkering with their budgets and class sizes and may recall some staff before the start of school, so numbers may shift.
Pittsburgh Public Schools have not announced any teacher furloughs but eliminated 217 positions -- 147 through furloughs -- among its support, clerical, central office and administrative staffs.
Among the suburban school districts, those with the largest teacher furlough totals include Steel Valley with about 36, Woodland Hills, 35, West Mifflin, 22, Highlands, 32, and Elizabeth Forward, 22.
"It's going to change programs and offerings, and for these poorer school districts it's going to be absolutely devastating," said Butch Santicola, a local PSEA spokesman.
Among the across-the-board cuts in districts are fewer options for foreign languages in high school, the elimination of foreign language programs in middle and high school and also fewer counselors and guidance counselors. There will also be fewer high school business and consumer science courses, fewer teachers aides in classrooms and cuts to some elementary music programs.
"What's hidden in all of these cuts is the layoffs of special education aides, and that is going to hurt programs," Mr. Santicola said.
School officials have scrambled since Mr. Corbett announced his budget in March to deal with the impending significant loss of state funds. They saw slight relief in sight in May when the state House approved a version of the budget that restored some funding. The Senate's version of the budget held essentially the same funding restorations with the exception of an additional $2.8 million for the Duquesne City School District, which initially took a $4 million hit in Mr. Corbett's budget.
However, school districts were thrown another curve in the final state budget when six of the 10 exceptions to state Act I were eliminated. Act I is the state law that limits school districts' tax hikes based on an inflationary index in return for property owners receiving state gambling revenues to reduce property taxes.
The exceptions for special purposes were created to allow districts to apply to the state education department for permission to raise taxes beyond their specific cap for reasons such as increased health care or pension costs or school construction -- costs that were beyond the school districts' control.
The final state budget retains four of the exceptions: pension increases, special education costs, school construction approved by the electorate and grandfathered debt.
"They kept the ones that are the two biggest ones that are requested by districts -- pensions and special education -- so it is noteworthy that they did the right thing. Districts have to be able to make some decisions," said Tom Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Among the exceptions eliminated, effective in the 2012-2103 school year, is the one that would allow districts to ask permission to raise taxes above their index for renovation or new construction projects. Now all such increases will have to be put to voter referendum, making the approval of construction projects more difficult.
Education experts say the likelihood of taxpayers in any district voting in favor of a tax hike for any reason is highly unlikely. Patrick Sable, chief financial officer for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, pointed to a referendum to hike taxes in Clairton that was soundly defeated this year. The board, fearful that the state would eliminate exceptions for the 2011-2012 school year, put a tax hike beyond its limit on the ballot in May.
"This diminishing local control is really not where we should be. School districts need the opportunity to make decisions about their districts. This 'one size fits all' doesn't work," Mr. Sable said.
In McKeesport, where the district is in the midst of a building consolidation project that calls for the creation of three primary/intermediate schools, officials could be in a difficult position if they find they cannot use about $34 million in an escrow account from a late 1990s project that was scaled back, business manager David Seropian said.
The current plan is to use the $34 million, along with proceeds from a $10 million bond issue and $15 million in qualified school construction bonds, to finance the project. But if it's determined that it is not legal to use the escrow funds, the district would face another bond issue, requiring voter approval if a tax hike was needed for repayment.
"There's a lot of education involved. People will have to know a lot before they go to the voting booth," Mr. Seropian said.
The PSBA's Mr. Gentzel is also frustrated over the fact that the legislature did not give school districts any relief from mandates as it had earlier suggested, such as easing the rules on teacher furloughs and allowing furloughs to take place for economic reasons.
Members of the Legislature have said they would be willing to revisit some of those issues, including mandate relief, vouchers, school choice and a review of the exceptions to Act I, in September.
But for Steel Valley superintendent William Kinavey, that's a hollow promise. "I'll believe it when I see it," Mr. Kinavey said.
With significantly decreased state funding and more restrictions on raising local taxes without voter approval, Mr. Kinavey has one question for the governor: "How do you raise revenues you need for your district?"
Mr. Kinavey said he has "right-sized" his district through furloughs of teachers, teachers aides, custodians and cafeteria workers for the coming year. "But I am very, very, very nervous about years two, three and four under Corbett. I think he is not a friend of public education, especially in lower income areas," Mr. Kinavey said.
In the Wilkinsburg School District, just two teachers were furloughed, but 19 teaching positions were eliminated and the districtwide staff of 305 was reduced by 42 positions. That included the furloughs of 10 instructional aides, four custodians, four administrators.
In all, it's a 14 percent reduction in staff in a district where there already "was no fat," business manager Bruce Dakan said.
"Is the responsibility level higher than ever? Yes. Is the stress level higher than ever? Yes," Mr. Dakan said. "In school districts it's difficult, and it's going to get more difficult."
Mr. Dakan and other school business managers are still scratching their heads over the state's decision to eliminate reimbursements for charter school tuition. Previously, districts received only about 30 percent reimbursement for the monies for students who attend charter schools and had lobbied to have the percentage increased. Instead it was eliminated.
That loss is hundreds of thousands of dollars for some school districts and the action "is a slap in the face for public education," Mr. Dakan said. The irony, he said, is that the program cuts forced on the public schools by the state budget will likely prompt more families to send their children to charter schools.
Jill Fleming-Salopek, an English teacher for 16 years who most recently worked as a secondary literacy coach in the Steel Valley School District, was furloughed last month. She is updating all of her clearances and posting her resume online and starting a program to earn a principal's certification in hopes of re-entering the education field.
"I'm going to update all of my stuff, and I'm going to put it out there. I am not going to close any door," said Ms. Fleming-Salopek, who holds a master's degree and has served on numerous district committees. "But the harsh reality is with all districts cutting back, I may have to look elsewhere. I love what I do, but I'm not even sure if I'll be working in education again."
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-851-1512.