Editorial: Financial pressure in school districts lead to tax hikes, staff cuts
As school districts plan for the coming year, the increasingly common challenge seems to have spread across the region.
School boards are reporting they’ll need to raise taxes or cut staff — and sometimes they are in such a bind that plans are in place to both raise taxes and cut staff.
As we reported a few weeks ago, at least 40 percent of the state’s 500 school districts plan a tax hike for the coming year. On top of that, 80 percent of the districts could shift staff to new or altered points of responsibility — most certainly as part of an effort to reduce costs. Into the mix this year is an interest in boosting school security and counseling programs to help address school safety after a disturbing series of school shootings in the past year.
Increasing mandated expenditures — especially pension costs — charter school tuition and special education costs continue to be among the biggest financial pressures districts said they face.
“It’s very difficult for school districts to try and find money in their budgets for all of these needs,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, adding that districts will need state and federal funds to help offset new safety-related costs.
Of course, the weakness in our public school system is not particularly new either. Nepotism, often criticized and certainly shameful, remains common in our school systems. Hiring practices marked by the employment of a board member or administrator’s child, close friend or distant relative on the basis of relationship first, with qualification a close second, is disappointing and every bit as debilitating to the general health of our schools as it has ever been.
The financial pressure on our school systems is not particularly new. Our best hope is more engagement from the communities they serve. It’s a big challenge, but there is evidence that communities will respond. An effort in the Southmoreland School District to raise funds to boost school security easily surpassed its goal of $40,000. Give a community something for which it finds value, and the response can be remarkable.
Citizens cry foul when their school boards present maximum tax increase proposals and tap reserve funds — as well they should. We can hope that there is an equal outcry when staff is cut, programs — like teacher aides for special needs students — are eliminated and infrastructure investment is curtailed. Because our school boards oversee local education in challenging times — in many cases amidst tax revenue and overall population declines — does not absolve them of responsibility. Is it difficult? Yes.
A well-informed, engaged and passionate citizenry is as critical to the success of our school systems as the students, teachers and administrators. So attend your school board meetings, ask questions, keep expectations high. We’ll all be the better for it.