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August 23, 2014, 9:21 am

Pa. public schools fear tougher budget year awaits

HARRISBURG — A year that has been hard on Pennsylvania's public school budgets, particularly in the state's poorest districts, could be followed by an even tougher year.

The administration of Gov. Tom Corbett is preparing a budget proposal Tuesday that will address a projected deficit, the state government's fourth in a row. And many lawmakers believe the Republican will press for more cuts to public school funding just a year after he and the GOP-controlled Legislature leveled the biggest school aid reduction in at least several decades to help close a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

Corbett's budget unveiling comes at a time when school districts' costs for pensions, salaries and health care are rising, and computer and textbook purchases and routine maintenance are being put off. Language, tutoring, arts and athletics programs are shrinking in many districts, while class sizes are growing.

It also comes as lawmakers warn Corbett that he needs to come up with a plan to deal with a growing number of school districts that could run out of money to pay bills, as impoverished Chester Upland, near Philadelphia, already did.

For now, many district officials are giving a gloomy outlook. Local tax revenues are stagnant, deficits are looming, reserves are shrinking and property tax increases are on the drawing board for next year's budgets — along with the possibility of more painful cutbacks.

"I just hope (Corbett and state lawmakers) look, at a minimum, to level funding and we'll see if we can get by on that for another year," said Bronson Stone, the superintendent of the approximately 900-student Susquehanna Community School District in northeastern Pennsylvania. "But any further reduction after the massive hit last year, it's uncalled for and we need a set of priorities in this state."

The possibility of more school funding cuts has suburban Pittsburgh parent and Woodland Hills school board member Tara Reis "panic-stricken. I'm beyond afraid. And I'm an optimistic person."

Last year, Corbett and the Legislature approved cuts in aid that, as a percentage, had the effect of drawing the most money away from the poorest districts because they tend to rely more heavily on state aid.

Administration officials have declined to answer questions about Corbett's upcoming budget proposal, although revenues are lagging projections this year and they say the rising costs for pensions, debt and health care will contribute to an estimated deficit of well over $500 million next year.

In testimony last week in front of the Senate Education Committee, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis criticized the state's past school funding practice for not diverting state dollars from school districts with shrinking enrollments to those that are growing.

Tomalis also has said that the growth of teachers' ranks in recent years is out of step with dropping public school enrollments statewide, and has suggested that school employees' collective raises of more than $1 billion since the recession began is excessive.

School funding is especially on lawmakers' minds after a federal judge had to order Corbett to send an advance to the Chester Upland district after teachers pledged to work unpaid and district officials warned that they would have to shut schools down.

All told this year, Corbett cut about $860 million, or more than 10 percent, from aid that supports public school instruction and operations.

According to an Associated Press analysis of state data on school budgets, attendance and income, school districts cut their budgets by a total of 3 percent in this school year, or $414 per student, compared with last year. That's a total of about $732 million.

Those reductions were deepest in poorer districts.

School districts that are in the bottom half of districts in average personal income reduced per-student spending by more than three times as much as the districts in the top half of personal income, according to AP's analysis.

That translates to a reduction of $696 per student, or 5 percent, to $13,271 in the poorest half of school districts, versus a reduction of $192 per student, or 1 percent, in the wealthier half of districts to $14,569.

The spread was more extreme on the farthest edges of the income spectrum.

In the 20 poorest districts, where average income is $24,860, per student spending dropped by 7 percent, or $1,000, to $13,077. In the 20 wealthiest districts, where average income is $108,985, per student spending actually rose almost 1 percent, or $149, to $17,723.

In Windber Area School District in southwestern Pennsylvania's coal country, average income is below $32,000 and the district is facing a $1.6 million deficit, or about 10 percent, next year after slashing its budget by 15 percent, one of the highest percentage reductions in the state this year.

Its elementary, middle and high schools regularly receive the state's Keystone Achievement Awards for demonstrating sustained academic achievement, but Superintendent Rick Huffman wondered how Windber is supposed to keep pace with wealthier districts.

"If the playing field was unequal before, we're not even sure there's a playing field left," Huffman said.

Susquehanna Community School District trimmed its full-day kindergarten program down to part-day as part of a 7 percent budget reduction this year. Average income is about $27,000 in the district, where schools also are regular Keystone Achievement Award recipients. Already, Stone, the superintendent, is projecting a minimum $800,000 shortfall, or 6 percent, next year that it may fill with its cash reserves.

In York, one of the state's poorest districts with average income of $25,000, teachers found themselves with larger classes and additional responsibilities or shuffled around to new positions to cover for laid-off colleagues after a 10 percent budget cut.

In Woodland Hills, which cut its budget by 9 percent, Tara Reis' two children, 5th- and 6th-graders, each have several more children in their classroom this year. One class rose from 21 to 25, and the other rose by 24 to at least 28 to 30, Reis said.

At the Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Philadelphia, parents are supplying pens, pencils and paper for a school where a 35 percent budget cut claimed a slew of jobs, student-advancement programs and big plans from an active parent community, said Rebecca Poyourow, a parent of two there.

Now, she said, kindergarten teachers are exhausted at the end of the day, the principal is covering for the laid-off bus monitor and no one has time to work on educational-improvement strategies while they're just trying to keep things running.

"It has been such a well-functioning school with such high teacher and student satisfaction that it's so disheartening and depressing this year to see it unraveling while we're fighting so hard to fix it," Poyourow said.

Harrisburg, cited by lawmakers as one of the state's most financially troubled school districts, is facing its third straight deficit after two years of budget cuts that included closing several school buildings and eliminating 500 jobs, or almost one-third of the remaining 1,100-strong staff, business manager Jeff Bader said.

For now, the increase in class sizes has been somewhat muted because of a shrinking enrollment, he said. Officials in the district, where average income is about $29,000 and property tax rates are among the highest in the state, can foresee $1.5 million in higher costs, or about 6 percent, next year from rising pension and debt obligations.

Employee salaries and health care insurance costs also could rise, depending on the outcome of negotiations with the labor union, along with utility and fuel costs, Bader said. There are no easy answers for how to pay for it all.

"We've gone past cutting the programs that are nice but not essential," Bader said. "We've gone past cutting extra expenses that aren't necessary. We've gotten ourselves down to the level (where) there's no extras out there." -- (AP)