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Report forecasts Pa. education funding perils

Jacob Tierney

Taxes are rising and programs are shrinking in more school districts than ever, and there’s widespread doubt among administrators that things will improve soon, according to a new report.

School administrators are all too familiar with the findings of the survey recently released by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

“This is, by far … the toughest budget situation I’ve ever had to deal with,” Jeannette schools business manager Paul Sroka said. “It has never been this chaotic.”

According to the survey:

• 85 percent of school districts plan to raise property taxes this year, and in most cases, those increases won’t be enough to cover rising costs.

• 83 percent plan to dip into reserves to make ends meet.

• 41 percent reduced staff in 2015-16, and 46 percent plan to this year.

• More than half of the districts will cut academic or extracurricular programs.

Brentwood School District’s planned 2016-17 millage rate of 29.533 is one of the highest in Allegheny County, and it still faces an annual deficit. It’s ill-equipped to deal with financial emergencies, business manager Jennifer Pesanka said.

“What if a roof goes? Will we be able to pay for that? There’s nowhere, really, that I can cut money anymore,” she said.

Every district faces rising costs, mostly through state-mandated expenses.

All of the 355 school districts that responded to the survey said their pension costs will go up this year by an average of 24 percent. More than 80 percent of schools said they will pay more for charter school tuition and health care costs.

The Greater Latrobe School District is making $1.02 million in Public School Employees’ Retirement System payments this year, a 17 percent increase from last year.

“The drum we have been beating is, if it was not for that darn (retirement system payment), and we have no control over it … we have done a pretty good job of managing those costs that we can within the district,” business manager Dan Watson said last month.

Administrators agree that the state needs to reform school funding, but they have little hope that action is imminent.

“I’m not sure there’s broad enough for support for that. I think in some places, we’re still hearing a lot of lip service,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the state association of school administrators.

The survey found 97 percent of administrators expect next year to be just as bad as or worse than this year.

“That is a scary proposition. Because eventually students are going to lose the opportunity to learn,” Buckheit said.

The state’s nine-month budget impasse that ended in March confused matters further for schools. Districts were forced to operate most of the year without money from the state — and about 14 percent of them had to borrow money to keep going, the survey said.

Penn Hills School District used a $12 million loan and an $18 million bond issue last year to keep afloat.

“Had the impasse extended further, we would not have lasted beyond April,” said Superintendent Nancy Hines.

The survey found 34 percent of districts would need to borrow money if the state does not pass a budget on time this year.

Districts have yet to receive their state “PlanCon” reimbursements for 2015-16, which cover construction or renovation costs. The survey found 85 percent of districts were counting on that money last year. Additionally, the state has put a moratorium on approving any new PlanCon projects this year.

The Kiski Area district is waiting for $1.5 million in PlanCon reimbursement for a 2010 building program, said business manager Peggy Gillespie.

“We’ve asked our taxpayers to bear the burden from 2010 forward for that debt service,” Gillespie said. “For us to go to our taxpayers again, that’s just not fair. If (the state) would make us whole, that would be significant.”

Because districts have been forced to rely primarily on property taxes, poor districts have fared far worse than wealthy ones, although nearly all are struggling, Buckheit said.

“We have one of the widest gaps between the richest and poorest school districts in the country,” he said.

The survey highlighted Elizabeth Forward School District as an example. In many ways the district is doing relatively well — it’s maintaining class sizes and keeping most of its staff. It’s raising property taxes this year, but it’s the first increase since 2013. It provides iPads to every student.

However, because of rising poverty and shrinking enrollment, administrators are worried about the future.

“We are holding our own. We are maintaining a wonderful program for children based on the resources we have,” said Superintendent Bart Rocco. “But, obviously, I see the discrepancies in funding from district to district. The ZIP code where a child lives should not affect the quality of education that we have.”

Despite widespread financial problems and the pervasive fear that things will get worse, Buckheit said there are some glimmers of hope. People want reform, he said, as demonstrated by polls during the 2014 gubernatorial election.

“For the first time in anyone’s memory, education funding was one of the top priorities,” he said.

The state approved a new formula last week that changes the way money is distributed to schools, which may help close the gap between rich and poor districts, according to Buckheit.

However, comprehensive change is sure to be a long, complicated process.

“There are no simple solutions. It’s about hard work and compromise,” Buckheit said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or [email protected]. Staff writers Mike Divittorio, Jeff Domenick, Mary Pickels and Renatta Signorini contributed to this story.


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