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Legislature needs to take school funding reform seriously

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It’s late May, so it’s time for school boards to pass a preliminary budget. Most often, they are accompanied by dire warnings of either steep tax increases, deep program cuts or significant teacher and support personnel layoffs.

Often though, something unforeseeable seems to happen as the June 30 budget deadline nears that has school boards finding fairly innocuous cuts or extra money from the state.

Then school directors praise themselves for passing a “bare bones” budget.

This school budgeting season has an entirely different vibe.

Nearly every school district in Westmoreland County is on the verge of really raising taxes — sometimes to the maximum allowed — and making deep program cuts and/or staff. Some are avoiding tax increases, or whittling them down, by dipping into their reserve funds.

It’s an alarming situation that questions what will happen in the near future.

Each school district’s situation is a little different, but the common threads include trying to keep up with pension payments for state employees, which, of course, includes teachers. Others frequently cited are paying for special education services and for cyber and charter school tuition for children living within their school district.

The problem, which has many causes, may be coming home to roost.

Start with a rapidly graying population and limited industrial and general business growth.

Then there’s the Legislature. Pennsylvania relies on local tax dollars to pick up more of the public school tab than most other states.

And the Legislature has kicked the state pension problem down the road for more than a decade. Special education is necessary, and school choice is a political favorite of Republicans who hold majorities in the Legislature.

The word “reform” is bandied about a lot, but changes never actually reach that level.

Because even school districts that are in better financial condition than their poorer counterparts are facing the music.

Franklin Regional, which has raised taxes all but one year since 2003, approved a preliminary $58.3 million budget that called for a 2.24-mill tax increase, with another $100,000 pulled from its balance fund.

Norwin School Board could eliminate teaching positions and raise taxes 3.1 percent to cover its anticipated $71.1 million in expenses for the upcoming school year. The board has yet to approve a proposed budget, which would have raised taxes by 2.4 mills — the maximum allowed by the state. Some members said they want more cuts in administration costs.

Greensburg Salem managed to adopt a preliminary $46.1 million budget without raising taxes — something the district has done 16 of the past 17 years. The move was made possible only by dipping into its cash reserves and pulling out $561,000, an amount equal to about 2.5 mills in tax revenue.

So the tug of war that’s always taken place on school boards — those directors who are more concerned with tax hikes vs. those who don’t mind spending money for better and more varied programs — is more intense than ever.

And the Legislature isn’t about to change.

So it seems like a financial cliff looms with no resolution in sight.

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