School Districts Grapple With Potential Cuts
PHILADELPHIA ( AP) – Teachers. Kindergarten programs. Art and music classes.
School officials across Pennsylvania say all that and more is on the chopping block in light of the governor’s plan to reduce education funding more than $1 billion.
The cutbacks would affect districts large and small, from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to tiny Wyalusing.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett says he is trying to close a multibillion dollar hole in the state’s budget. But the depth of the cuts – a complete reversal from the previous administration’s eight straight years of increased education funding – has left many districts stunned and scrambling.
“We’re in such bad shape financially because of the lack of money we’re going to be getting from the state,’’ Wyalusing Superintendent Ray Fleming said. “We’ve seen those kinds of (deficit) numbers before, but we always assumed the state would come through.’’
Students are worried, too. About 200 students in the West Shore School District staged sitins at several schools last week to protest cuts including the environmental education program and literacy and computer coaches.
On Wednesday, hundreds of students marched in Philadelphia, where district officials anticipate a $293 million loss in state funding.
“We feel as though he’s taking away too much money from schools and putting it into prisons,” said Shayla Johnson, a 17- year-old junior at Overbrook High School who participated in the protest.
Corbett wants to reduce public school aid by $550 million and eliminate $259 million in subsidies for programs such as all- day kindergarten. He also wants to cut $224 million in reimbursements to districts whose students transfer to charter schools.
The Department of Corrections would see a slight increase of $13.5 million under Corbett’s spending plan.
Education Secretary-nominee Ron Tomalis has said the education cuts would hit poorest districts hardest. He contends the money hasn’t bought higher test scores, but school advocates point to districts like Philadelphia, which saw eight consecutive years of gains in reading and math.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, after hearing dire predictions from educators at budget hearings, have said the reductions may be too steep.
Pittsburgh public schools stand to lose $34.1 million in state funds, threatening a pre-kindergarten program serving 2,500 children and an afterschool program for 3,800 students who need help in reading and math. Pittsburgh also slashed its capital improvement budget for 2011. The district had planned to borrow more than $60 million for 43 projects but now plans to borrow just $15 million.
“In this difficult fiscal climate, it makes absolutely no sense for the district to borrow and spend $60 million on capital projects,’’ Superintendent Linda Lane said.
The Wyalusing Area School District in Bradford County, with fewer than 1,500 students, faces a budget deficit of more than $2 million and may have to cut more than a dozen teachers and aides.
The superintendent of the Susquehanna Community School District in Susquehanna County has said small rural districts like his eventually will be forced to merge or shut down if the fiscal situation doesn’t improve.
In Allentown, among the state’s largest school districts, the school board was poised to vote on a plan to cut about 250 teachers and support staff workers as part of an academic restructuring. The district faces a budget shortfall of more than $28 million – the worst in its history.
In Philadelphia, officials predict an overall deficit of $629 million next year – 20 percent of its $3.2 billion budget.
That could mean halving the district’s central office staff; eliminating arts, music and gifted programs; increasing class sizes; and reopening contract negotiations with teachers, among other drastic measures. The number of potential teacher losses is unclear as the district plans to offer an early retirement program to help reduce layoffs.
Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman has already announced she will work 20 unpaid furlough days to help cover a smaller deficit this school year. Other top administrators are taking 16 furlough days.
Ackerman said in a statement Thursday that she was heartened by the students’ protest.
“ These young people have the greatest stake in these budget discussions, so it was very encouraging to see them, students of all ages, coming together to fight for their future,” she said.
Some Pennsylvania school districts plan to raise property taxes to cushion the loss of state and federal stimulus funding.
Six school districts in Erie County alone have asked the state Department of Education to allow them to enact tax increases larger than limits spelled out by state law.