2011-08-11 / Local & State

When Pa. Cuts School Aid, Poorer Districts Lost

By Marc Levy

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Cutbacks in state aid for public schools hit Pennsylvania’s poorer school districts the hardest, slashing nearly three times as many dollars in aid per student compared with wealthier districts, according to an Associated Press analysis of state data.

All told, the poorest 150 school districts, or 30 percent of the state’s total, lost $537.5 million in five key program lines. That works out to $581 per student, the AP’s analysis found. The wealthiest 150 school districts, as measured by the number of children who qualify for subsidized school lunches, lost $123 million, or $214 per student.

Of the remaining money in the programs, almost $3 per student went to the 150 poorest districts for every $1 per student that went to the 150 wealthiest.

The hardest-hit districts, such as Philadelphia, Reading and York, lost more than 10 times the money per student as some other districts, such as Council Rock School District in Bucks County, North Allegheny in suburban Pittsburgh and Tredyffrin-Easttown in Chester County.

It’s been several decades since state aid for public schools was cut as significantly as it was for the 2011-12 school year.

The cutbacks in state aid tended to be one piece of a difficult funding puzzle for school districts this year. Administrators and board members also found themselves wrestling with rising health care, utility and pension costs or stagnant tax collections stemming from dropping home sales and values.

Poorer school districts typically draw a higher proportion of their budgets from state aid, based on formulas designed to help provide an equal education to all students and help close the funding gap between what wealthier districts and poorer districts can collect from local taxes.

The cuts largely were levied based on the same formula.

Advocates for public schools said the distribution of the cuts worked against efforts to close that gap, and should have been distributed on an equal per-student basis. But the Corbett administration has maintained that districts that lost the most money are those that receive the most money.

As a result, high-poverty districts were hit the hardest by the cutbacks, many say.

“They are the ones that are laying off large amounts of teachers, it’s not the middle class and affluent communities that are doing that,’’ said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “They may be doing a little bit of it, but it’s the high-poverty, less-affluent districts that are having major increases in class sizes and eliminating essential programming.’’

Newly elected Gov. Tom Corbett insisted that the state cut its way out of a multibillion-dollar budget deficit fueled by recessionwracked tax collections and the disappearance of one-time money sources, including federal aid, that were used to push up spending in the past three years.

While the state is sending more than $2.7 billion to schools in support for transportation, special education and employee retirement costs, it also made deep cuts in discretionary education funding that pays for employee salaries, classroom materials and building maintenance.

As a result, the final budget deal between Corbett, a Republican, and the GOP-controlled Legislature cut $851 million, or 16 percent, from five key discretionary programs: basic education, school-improvement grants, accountability block grants, charter school reimbursements and a tutoring program called education assistance.

That left almost $5.5 billion in the programs for the 2011-12 fiscal year that began July 1. Of that, $950 million went to the wealthiest 150 school districts, or about $1,520 per student. Almost $3 billion went to the poorest 150 districts, or almost $4,500 per student. On average, the budgets from the two groups were nearly equal last year at $63.5 million.

The state’s falling axe on school aid was handled a variety of ways. Many districts decided against filling open jobs or replacing retiring employees, and they reduced a wide range of programs – such as sports, tutoring and arts – to save money.

Among the poorest districts is Reading, which was facing a hit of nearly $18 million, or $1,020 per student, according to the state data. It absorbed some by tapping about $8 million in reserves, said board president Yvonne Stroman. Buyouts, retirements and furloughs helped eliminate dozens of positions, she said.

Harrisburg, like Reading, didn’t raise taxes, but it had no reserves to absorb a cut of nearly $5 million, or $580 per student. So it eliminated more than 200 jobs – about one-sixth of the district’s work force – and is closing four buildings, said district business administrator Jeff Bader. The district has about $950,000 in state aid that it didn’t plan on and expects to use it to restore the full-day kindergarten classes it dropped to half-day, he said.

Sharon City, in northwestern Pennsylvania, lost $2 million in state aid, or about $938 per student. It didn’t replace 13 retiring employees, cut its supplies budget by half, and tapped $500,000 from its reserves while leaving tax rates the same, said superintendent John Sarandrea.

“What I think people forget is that, even though revenues were reduced to school districts, expenses didn’t stay the same,’’ Sarandrea said. “Expenses went up. The heating and cooling bills go up, the sewer bill goes up, the water bill goes up, repair bills go up.’’

Philadelphia, the state’s biggest school district where 10 percent of the state’s schoolchildren are educated, lost $272 million in state funds _one-third of the total amount cut by the state and $1,309 per student, according to state data.

“We’re a little perplexed as to why with 10 percent of the kids we got 30 percent of the cuts,’’ said Michael Masch, the district’s chief business officer.

The district still received about $990 million, or a little under onefifth of the total from the programs.

In response, the district eliminated more than 2,800 jobs, or 12 percent of the work force, reduced a range of programs and received a $53 million aid package from the city, which included increases in property taxes and parking fees, Masch said.

Cumberland Valley in suburban Harrisburg, one of the state’s wealthier districts, lost $1.4 million in aid, or $185 per student. District administrators identified a funding gap almost four times that amount, and as a result it raised taxes and eliminated about 15 positions, among other cost-cutting measures, a spokeswoman said.

Another of the wealthiest districts, Buck County’s Council Rock, lost about $900,000 in the cuts, or $75 per student, according to state data. The district initially identified a funding gap of $14 million fueled by declining property tax revenues as home values dropped and more and more homeowners sought and won lower assessments from the county, said superintendent Mark Klein.

The district left tax rates the same, tapped $4 million in reserves and eliminated more than 60 positions, he said.

“In the eight years as superintendent here and 22 years as an administrator, I’ve never seen anything tougher,’’ Klein said.

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