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Survey: PA Schools Struggle to Make Ends Meet

Thomas Favre-Bulle

  Pennsylvania schools are being forced to make cuts to programming and staff in order to keep up with mandated costs and lack of funding.

That’s according to the Pennsylvania Associations of School Administrators (PASA) and of School Business Officials (PASBO) which released their fourth annual Survey on School District Budgets.

With responses from 321 of the 500 school districts throughout the commonwealth, the survey has indicated that school districts are still struggling to make ends meet.

Basic education funding stayed mostly the same this fiscal year, while funding for special education increased by about two percent.

The survey found the school districts had implemented the projected budget cuts, staff reductions and tax hikes into their final spending plans for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“These cuts mean that students and school staff are being asked to do more with less at the same time as the state is transitioning to new and more demanding state academic standards and student, school and teacher accountability requirements,” Jim Buckheit, PASA executive director, said.

He said the schools have had to cut a slew of programs – including foreign language instruction, music and theater programming, business education and even pre-K programs.  He added that schools are also having to cut extracurricular programs ranging from athletics to clubs and music programs.

Jay Himes, PASBO executive director, said the reduced student opportunities are the result of a “continued upward spiral” of mandated expenditures, including pensions.  Most of the schools surveyed are also seeing increases in expenses for health care, special education and charter school payments according to the survey.

Himes said the pension rate by school districts will increase from about 16 percent to 21.4 percent this fiscal year.

“For each one percent increase in the public school employee retirement systems contribution rate, school budgets take an approximate hit of $60 million,” Himes said. “So this year school payments to PSRS (the Public School Employees’ Retirement System) will mean more than $270 million in additional mandated costs to schools.”

Since state funding has not kept up with the increase in mandated costs, Hannah Barrick, PASBO director of advocacy, said the local taxpayers are the ones having to make up the difference.

“With the reduced state funding and rising mandated costs, school districts have been forced to turn to local taxpayers to raise the revenue necessary to continue their programs and pay their bills,” Barrick said. “As a result, the local revenue, which is made up mostly of property taxes, has increased by 16 percent since 2008-09.”

She said the school districts indicated a total of $1.6 billion in additional local funds that have been raised since 2008-09 to cover the increases.  More than 90 percent of the respondents have raised property taxes at least once in the last five years – and 60 percent have had to increase them each year.

The report showed that schools in high-poverty areas were the most affected by the lack of funding, having to make cuts to multiple programs ranging from physical education to Advanced Placement as well as special education programs.

However, the General Assembly created a Basic Education Funding Commission to make recommendations for a more efficient funding formula for Pennsylvania schools, which is to issue its recommendations in June.

Buckheit said it’s time the commonwealth’s schools have the funds necessary to continue running.

“It’s time to change course,” Buckheit said. “With a new year, a new legislative session and a new administration in Harrisburg, it’s time to commit to securing an adequate, predictable and sustainable school funding system that our commonwealth and our schools so desperately need.”