08 Jun Report: Schools Are in Need of State Funding (PA)June 8, 2010
By: Andrew M. SederSource: The Times Leader
A new report says school districts, already faced with tough budget decisions that are leading to cuts in staff and programs, will be in even greater financial straits if a proposed $354.8 million increase in state funding for public education isn’t approved.
The report, released Monday by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, aimed to illustrate just how dire the financial situation is for the state’s 500 school districts and how matters could become disastrous without additional funding proposed in Gov. Ed Rendell’s 2010-11 budget.
“The study makes it abundantly clear that without the funding increase there are going to be significant staff and program cuts,” said James P. Testerman, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). “The result will be larger class sizes, fewer s pecialized programs and a reduction in extracurricular activities. The losers ultimately will be the students.”
A survey conducted in April and May received responses from 256 of the state’s districts. The results revealed that two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s school districts plan to eliminate instructional staff positions next year.
Locally, though district budgets are still being finalized, some districts have looked at that option. Lake-Lehman’s board voted Thursday night to approve a tentative budget that calls for a property tax increase of 11.1 percent that balances the budget.
Superintendent James McGovern said a proposal to eliminate four elementary teaching positions would result in approximately $280,000 in savings. McGovern said he expects cuts in personnel in the final budget but did not say the four teaching posts would be among them.
In addition, offerings such as foreign languages, driver education, library, music and art programs are facing the scalpel in districts across the state.
The groups behind the survey held a conference call Monday morning to discuss the report.
Among the participants on the call was PSEA Government Relations Manager James G. Vaughan. He noted that Pennsylvania had to rely on federal stimulus money to help fund public education in last year’s budget, and that the governor’s proposed $354.8 million increase actually only replaces that money. The $354.8 million “increase” in essence only returns state education funding to 2008-09 levels, Vaughan pointed out.
Any loss of state funding will only compound matters for districts that are already seeing drops in revenue from taxpayers and investments and facing a huge crisis in the state pension system.
School districts lost $343 million in local revenues the last two fiscal years as the result of lower tax revenues and investment earnings stemming from the recession, according to the report.
“School districts in every region of the state face severe revenue shortfalls,” said Laura Cowburn, business manager for the Columbia School District in Lancaster County.
Another concern among those involved in public education is school districts’ tendency to balance budgets by dipping into fund balances, or budgetary reserves.
The survey showed that seven of 10 districts responded by indicating that this would be done for the 2010-11 budget. Locally, the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board is considering using $1.1 million of it fund balance to offset a budget hole.
“The situation is very grave,” said Joan Benso, who met with The Times Leader editorial board on Monday. Benso, president of Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, said the findings in the report should sound alarms for school districts and taxpayers alike.
She said if anything less than the proposed $354.8 million is restored to the budget, “it’s going to be a train wreck out there.”
Tom Cipriano, business manager for Hanover Area, said the district’s 2010-11 budget was put together based on receiving some of that $354.8 million. He said if those funds do not come through, programs, field trips and discretionary items will have to be cut. He said teacher numbers will likely not be affected.
Dipping into the district’s fund balance is off the table because entering the budget year, the district showed no money in that account.
;Dallas Area is also bucking the state trend of tapping into the budgetary reserves for the 2010-11 budget.
Superintendent Frank Galicki said the district will make do with the hand it’s been dealt.
“We don’t believe going into the surplus is the answer,” Galicki said. He said to balance out a $500,000 shortage on the revenue side, the district is not filling open positions and “we’ve done some creative work” to make sure the 3.4 percent tax increase is sufficient.
He said, however, that if the $354.8 million was not approved, the district would be scrambling. The district is due to receive $330,000 of that total.
“Without that we would be hurting,” Galicki said. “Difficult decisions would have to be made.” He said scaling back purchases of supplies and athletic team-related purchases would be first on the list.