Pa. school sur­vey paints bleak bud­get pic­ture

Prop­erty tax hikes and staff cuts loom in many dis­tricts

The Kutztown Area Patriot - - LOCAL NEWS - By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-cen­tu­ry­media. com @PottstownNews on Twit­ter

School of­fi­cials across the state are cast­ing a wary eye to­ward Feb. 7 and hop­ing they will be thrown a fis­cal life­line.

On Tues­day, Gov. Wolf re­leased his bud­get plan for the com­ing fis­cal year, a plan that must con­tend with a $700 mil­lion short­fall un­der ex­pected 2016 rev­enues and a $3 bil­lion gap for the com­ing fis­cal year.

That’s not a promis­ing foun­da­tion for in­creased fund­ing for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, which is bad news for dis­tricts where, ac­cord­ing to a new statewide sur­vey, prop­erty taxes are ris­ing, along with class sizes, while re­serve funds and staff lev­els are fall­ing and aca­demic pro­grams are be­ing cut.

Sur­vey Says?

The an­nual sur­vey con­ducted jointly by the Penn­syl­va­nia As­so­ci­a­tion of School Ad­min­is­tra­tors and the Penn­syl­va­nia As­so­ci­a­tion of School Busi­ness Of­fi­cials was re­leased last Wed­nes­day and its find­ings con­tained few bright spots for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia.

“We con­tinue to march back­wards re­sult­ing in more staff cuts, higher prop­erty taxes and re­duced ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Jay Himes, PASBO ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said in a state­ment ac­com­pa­ny­ing the re­lease of this year’s re­port.

“Our only op­tion to bal­anc­ing school bud­gets is to in­crease prop­erty taxes, cut staff and spend down re­serves,” Himes said.

An anal­y­sis of the data culled from 361 of Penn­syl­va­nia’s 500 school dis­tricts — the sur­vey’s high­est re­sponse to date — in­di­cates that the $200 mil­lion in ad­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and im­ple­men­ta­tion of the “fair fund­ing for­mula” in the last bud­get threw drown­ing dis­tricts “a life vest,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Some which had an­tic­i­pated higher pro­gram or staff cuts were able to sal­vage some, or avoid dras­tic tax hikes, as a re­sult of the in­creased state aid.

But ris­ing man­dated costs for pen­sions (30 per­cent), char­ter school tu­ition (4 per­cent); health care (6 per­cent) and spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion (6 per­cent) con­sumed the ad­di­tional fund­ing and have fore­stalled any of the strug­gling dis­tricts gain­ing solid ground, leav­ing most still “tread­ing wa­ter” af­ter years of es­ca­lat­ing costs, ac­cord­ing to the anal­y­sis.

Rais­ing taxes, cut­ting staff and pro­grams

As a re­sult, 77 per­cent of the dis­tricts sur­veyed raised taxes in the cur­rent school year.

And of those that did raise taxes, 63 per­cent raised that at or even above the Act 1 in­dex limit set by the state for each dis­trict.

About 33 per­cent of the dis­tricts sur­veyed re­duced staff and 37 per­cent made some kind of aca­demic pro­gram cut.

In Delaware County’s Chich­ester School Dis­trict, one of six dis­trict’s pro­filed in the re­port, teach­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tive staff have been re­duced for six years in a row and the sum­mer en­rich­ment pro­gram was elim­i­nated.

“We’ve cut and cut and cut to the point that we don’t know where to look any longer,” ac­cord­ing to Su­per­in­ten­dent Kath­leen Sher­man.

Tony Testa, the dis­trict’s busi­ness man­ager, said last year the school board re­lied on re­serves to close the bud­get gap in the cur­rent year “but that is not a sus­tain­able long-term strat­egy.”

(See re­lated story on the role played by bud­get re­serves)

Fair fund­ing? Not re­ally

An at­tempt by the Gen­eral As­sem­bly last year to ad­dress an­other peren­nial school fund­ing is­sue took the form of some­thing called the “fair fund­ing for­mula,” the re­sult of the July 2015 re­port of the Ba­sic Fair Fund­ing Com­mis­sion, which in­cluded two lo­cal leg­is­la­tors.

Among the things the com­mis­sion rec­om­mended was set­ting an in­creased amount for the 180 un­der­funded school dis­tricts in Penn­syl­va­nia in ad­di­tion to the ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, thus help­ing them to catch up to the over-funded dis­tricts.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY ALAN MACBAIN — FOR DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

But that did not hap­pen. As a re­sult, as fi­nan­cial strug­gles worsen, the gaps be­tween rich and poor dis­tricts widen faster than the fair fund­ing for­mula can close them, ac­cord­ing to the con­clu­sion of the school of­fi­cials sur­vey.

“A for­mula is only as good as the rev­enues it dis­trib­utes,” the au­thors noted.

The bor­der of poor and wealthy

An­other re­port, called “Fault Lines” and re­leased this sum­mer, looked at those in­equities na­tion­wide by putting a spot­light on the places where a school dis­trict bor­der marked the line be­tween an ed­u­ca­tion ben­e­fit­ting from abun­dant re­sources, and one that did not.

It should come as no sur­prise that Penn­syl­va­nia, which is fre­quently iden­ti­fied as hav­ing the big­gest cu­mu­la­tive gap be­tween poor and wealthy dis­tricts in the na­tion, does not fare well in this re­port.

In fact Penn­syl­va­nia, like many other rust belt and south­ern states, is home to six of the 50 worst bor­der dis­par­i­ties in the coun­try.

And four of them — Wil­son, Wy­omiss­ing, Schuylkill Val­ley and Gov­er­nor Mif­flin — are dis­tricts that bor­der the City of Read­ing — which is un­der­funded by $95 mil­lion ev­ery year and is con­sid­ered to be the most un­der-funded school dis­trict in the Com­mon­wealth.

While the Read­ing School Dis­trict has a poverty rate of 48 per­cent, those four dis­tricts which bor­der it — Wil­son, Wy­omiss­ing, Schuylkill Val­ley and Gov­er­nor Mif­flin — have poverty rates of be­tween 10 and 12 per­cent.

Dark clouds ahead

The rem­edy most re­viled, and yet most of­ten en­acted on the lo­cal level to ad­dress these fi­nan­cial ills, are in­creased prop­erty taxes.

Of the dis­tricts sur­veyed, 70 per­cent pre­dicted they will have to in­crease prop­erty taxes in the 2017-2018 school year.

More star­tling, a whoop­ing 94 per­cent ex­pect that their dis­trict’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion will be the same or worse next year.

Given the struc­tural prob­lems with Penn­syl­va­nia’s bud­get and the short­falls al­ready iden­ti­fied, “the re­al­ity could be even more dire than they pre­dict.”

A sur­vey of Penn­syl­va­nia school dis­tricts re­leased last week in­di­cates many sink­ing dis­tricts are now “tread­ing wa­ter” thanks to the “life vest” thrown to them with the $200 mil­lion in­crease in ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing last year. But as man­dated costs rise, they are wait­ing to see if Gov. Tom Wolf’s next bud­get can put pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion on solid ground.

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