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Education

‘75 kindergartners, one toilet’: Witness testimony begins in landmark Pa. school funding trial

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AP

The Panther Valley School District is so strapped for cash, it considered eliminating programs like art, music and sports in their entirety. It plugged the gap with federal pandemic relief funding, but when that runs out, those programs could be back on the chopping block.

That’s one of the details Superintendent David McAndrew shared as the first witness in a landmark case that could dramatically reshape the way Pennsylvania funds public schools.

Over hours of testimony, McAndrew described the challenges of leading a school district that doesn’t have enough resources to meet students’ needs.

Panther Valley can’t afford to pay for certain positions like assistant principals, he said, and struggles to recruit and retain teachers when neighboring districts offer higher salaries.

“When we’re trying to hire a teacher, that’s what we’re facing, somebody that could go to a different job and make $23,000 more to start,” McAndrew said.

Spanning both Carbon and Schuylkill Counties, Panther Valley serves more than 1,600 students. Around 56% are classified as economically disadvantaged, though McAndrew believes the number of children living in poverty is higher.

There are no librarians or truancy officers. An elementary school principal also serves as school psychologist and federal grant coordinator. The district’s lone social worker, funded through a grant, visits school buildings once a week.

Some teachers and paraprofessionals have retired without being replaced, leading to larger class sizes and less individual support for students.

“We’re on the verge of bankruptcy, so we had to make those decisions just to keep our doors open,” McAndrew said. “We make those decisions knowing that’s not in the best interest of students.”

Panther Valley is one of six school districts suing Pennsylvania’s legislature, governor, and department of education, arguing the state has so badly underfunded public schools and failed to close spending gaps among districts that it violates its own constitution. Four parents and two statewide organizations are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2014. A trial began in Commonwealth Court last week.

In his opening statement on Friday, a lawyer representing GOP House Speaker Bryan Cutler argued that while there are some disparities among districts, Pennsylvania schools are able to provide the “thorough and efficient” education required by the state constitution.

“I’m not going to stand here and argue that all of the school buildings in all of the school districts are the Taj Mahal,” the lawyer, Patrick Northen, said. “But the evidence will show kids in petitioner districts have the basic instrumentalities of an adequate education, with chairs to sit in, desks or tables to write at, walls and roofs, working plumbing.”

Asked for his response to that statement, McAndrew said he was “appalled a little bit by hearing that because so much more goes into education.”

Sometimes Panther Valley doesn’t even have those basics, McAndrew said, describing a leaky elementary school roof, plumbing issues, and “75 kindergarteners that use one toilet and two urinals.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that Pennsylvania’s current school funding model, which relies more heavily on local taxes to fund schools than most other states, creates an education system of haves and have nots.

On the stand, McAndrew noted that Panther Valley’s tax rate is the 10th highest in Pennsylvania, but the former coal mining community still cannot raise enough to sufficiently fund its schools.

“We can’t keep going to the poorest people and asking for more money,” McAndrew said. “It’s a balance. Do you want kids to have an arts education or do you want to tax people out of their house? That’s the tough decisions that people want us to make.”

Closing out his direct testimony, McAndrew said he was part of the case to ask the state of Pennsylvania for help.

“Who else is there to ask?” he said. “We can’t keep asking our local taxpayers. We can’t ask our teachers to work for free,” or parents to teach students at home.

“What else can we do? We need a revenue source to give these kids an education. That’s what the constitution says we should have, and we’re just not meeting that need right now. And we need it to change.”

Cross examination started late in the day Monday. A defense attorney for GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman played video footage from inside the district’s schools, with clean hallways, large classrooms, and a shiny gymnasium floor.

The attorney also walked McAndrew through a wide range of course offerings in the district’s high school, from AP Chemistry to Apocalyptic and Dystopian Literature.

During his testimony, McAndrew noted that the district was able to expand its course catalogue using pandemic relief funds, adding honors and remedial classes along with more specialized classes like Cinema and History.

The trial, which is expected to last for months, continues Tuesday afternoon, with McAndrew facing more questions from the defense.