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State Democrats Want to Know How Many School Districts are in Financial Trouble

The ranking Democrat on the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee asked the Department of Education for a list of school districts that are financially distressed or on the brink of bankruptcy. Only one district was named: the Duquesne School District in Allegheny County. Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis said that's the only district that falls under the legal definition of financially distressed.

Senator Andy Dinniman (D-Chester County) said the department is interpreting the law too narrowly, and there are many more districts in financial distress than just the one.

"Most of us in Harrisburg realize there are a number of schools in danger of not making their payroll either this year or next year, and this is a very distressful situation," said Dinnman.

But, the Department of Education said labeling a district as financially distressed is a serious issue, and a district does have to meet specific criteria.

"It's very concerning that a lawmaker would be concerned with a department following the letter of the law," said department Spokesman Tim Eller, "the law is very clear in what the requirements for being fiscally distressed are, if those requirements are not met by any school district the secretary is unable to declare a school district fiscally distressed under the confines of the law."

Still, Dinniman said it's important to know exactly which districts are facing the most hardship, so that help can be added into the state budget. He said the Department of Education isn't releasing a broader list of troubled schools for a number of reasons.

"It's a combination of interpreting the law more strictly than they need to, a matter of wanting to hide the real needs of education in the Commonwealth, and a concern that they're going to be taken to court by other districts as their needs become apparent," said Dinniman.

Eller said that's not the case, and added that there likely are several districts having problems, but that doesn't mean they can be labeled financially distressed.

"The secretary has had off the record conversations with superintendents, a hand full across the state, not that they're in fiscal distress but that they may be having some cash flow issue or may need some technical assisstance at the district level to help them complete the year in the cash positive," said Eller.

Eller said the department simply doesn't have a list of school districts having problems, as they're not required to report all of their financial issues to the department. So, he said, there is no list to give lawmakers.