School districts must make do after funding cuts of $1 billion


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As school starts across the region, the full impact of the approximately $1 billion in state cuts to education funding is becoming apparent.

Students may find more faces of their peers in classes and fewer faces of the adults -- teachers, teachers aides, custodians and administrators -- who have been furloughed.

After-school tutoring programs instituted to improve achievement on state tests have been cut in most of the districts that lost the state funding for them, though some districts are working to restore the programs by applying for grant money or squeezing it from another area of their budget.

At some high schools, students will find fewer course options. At the elementary and middle school, some districts will have fewer choices or lower frequency for music and foreign languages.

Parents can also expect school supply lists to be longer as districts provide fewer items this year, and many can also expect to be levied fees if their children want to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities.

In the West Mifflin Area School District, one of the first pains of the budget may be felt in the feet of students who will have to walk up to four-tenths of a mile to get to their bus stops tomorrow. Budget cuts prompted a consolidation of bus runs and stops.

Donna Lonzo of West Mifflin told the school board Thursday that students on her street have to walk eight blocks to their new bus stop. She said she was worried about their safety, particularly during the winter.

"You are asking them to walk a half mile. That's ridiculous," Ms. Lonzo said.

But the response she got from school officials is that the bus consolidation was a necessary budget-cutting decision.

After eliminating 47 jobs, the district was forced to cut its freshman academy at the high school and team-teaching approach at the middle school. With both programs, students were kept with one team of teachers, and in the case of the freshman academy, all ninth-graders were kept in their own area of the high school away from the upper-class students.

"In a school as big as our high school, a ninth-grader feels very intimidated. With the freshman academy, you knew there was always someone looking out for you," said superintendent Janet Sardon.

Michael Panza, who took over as Sto-Rox superintendent Aug. 1, said his district was able to avoid major cuts when all employees agreed to a pay freeze, which saved the district between $250,000 and $275,000. The district was able to maintain its full-day kindergarten, but as of now it has no after-school tutoring program. In addition, the track team was cut from the budget.

But Mr. Panza said his hometown school district of Moniteau in Butler County, where he sits on the school board, was not as lucky. At Moniteau, 10 teachers, nine paraprofessionals and two custodians were furloughed. The number of French courses at the high school was reduced, and the marching band is permitted to travel to just four events this year.

"I used to be a band director, so this broke my heart," Mr. Panza said.

The Seneca Valley School District, with 7,300 students in southern Butler County, will start the year with 69 fewer employees.

At the elementary level, that means music, art and physical education classes that previously were held twice every six days will be held once every five days, said Jeffrey Fuller, assistant superintendent overseeing elementary grades.

However, there will be an increase in the number of times elementary students have library and computer labs.

Also at the elementary level, the number of classes was reduced by 18, so larger class sizes are expected.

"We had about 21 students per class but with the new numbers it will be about 24 students per class," Mr. Fuller said, "but that number may skewer upward to 27-30 in the higher grades."

At the secondary level in Seneca Valley, the number of high school business teachers was reduced from nine to two, which saved about $750,000. Also eliminated was a sewing class.

Matthew McKinley, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said the technology skills taught in the business courses that were eliminated are being imbedded in other areas of the curriculum.

The district has also instituted a hefty pay-to-play fee, charging $75 per sport and $35 per nonathletic activity with a cap of $225 per family. In addition, it will cost $25 to ride the activity bus and $60 per semester -- up from $35 -- for students who drive to school.

"We realize that we are not alone and that many districts are going through these types of changes," Seneca Valley spokeswoman Linda Andreassi said.

The Bethel Park School District will levy a more modest activity fee/athletic fee of $50. But Bethel Park eliminated its activity buses. In addition, students in small-group activities will have to raise money to pay for their transportation to events, and all field trip transportation must be paid by Parent Teacher Organizations or student fundraising.

District Spokeswoman Vicki Flotta said the transportation cuts were chosen by the board over staff cuts.

The scenario is similar in the Peters Township School District in Washington County, where smaller school clubs and groups will be asked to fund raise to pay for their transportation to events and PTAs and PTOs will have to sponsor field trips.

"The kids will have to use a little elbow grease outside of the classroom holding bake sales and carwashes," district spokeswoman Shelly Belcher said.

The district has also imposed a $90 sports fee, $45 band fee and $10 activity fee at the high school. The sports fee at the middle school is $35.

Ms. Belcher said parents may also find that the supply list their children bring home from school is a bit longer this year. In the Woodland Hills School District, where central administration was cut by about 40 percent, "those left behind are wearing multiple hats," superintendent Walter Calinger said. "The person who handles transportation now handles cafeteria and security too and anything else I tell him to do."

There is one fewer assistant principal at the high school and junior high school, and the elementary schools are sharing assistant principals.

Class sizes will by higher throughout the district, where nine elementary and 26 secondary teachers were furloughed in June.

As of now, there is no tutoring program for students, but Mr. Calinger is hoping to introduce a "personal education plan" for each student, which would have teachers addressing their individual needs. He also plans to look to the community for volunteer tutors.

On top of its other budget woes, Woodland Hills is among the districts in the midst of contract negotiations with teachers. Other such districts include Bethel Park and Clairton. "We have no money to give," Mr. Calinger said.

McKeesport Area, Clairton and South Allegheny are among the districts that lost their funding for tutoring programs but still hope to provide the services somehow.

"It's a vital program in order to make [Adequate Yearly Progress]," said Wayde Killmeyer, superintendent of the Clairton School District. "We are being told 'you will continue to make all of the progress you have been making but do it with less money.' I don't know how we are supposed to do that."

Teacher aides were laid off in the Clairton district, and Mr. Killmeyer believes the students will notice that loss.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools eliminated 23 paraprofessionals on Wednesday in a group of 30 employees who were furloughed. That action followed the elimination of 59 employees last month, including 31 teachers, and a cut of 217 positions in June among central office and operational support staff.

The district has made a number of cuts that include eliminating its teacher academy and announced plans to close seven schools.

In South Allegheny, high school students will notice that they can no longer participate in the dual enrollment program, which provides college credits while in high school, at little or no cost because state funding for the program was cut, said Richard Fine, assistant superintendent.

Previously the district had about 20 students who took advantage of the program offered on- and off-site through Community College of Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh. Through the program, students would sign up for classes and pay the initial fees but be reimbursed later for much of the expense.

The district also eliminated four instructional coaches, which means "teachers will not have all of the resources and supports they had in the past," Mr. Fine said.

In McKeesport Area, some 90 positions were eliminated for the 2011-2012 school year through retirements and attrition.

The good news was that there was no need for furloughs. The bad news is that everyone is being asked to take on additional responsibilities, and class sizes are expected to be larger, assistant superintendent Rula Skezas said. "We went down a whole team of teachers at the middle school, so the teams will be a little bigger," she said.

The central office staff was reconfigured, and each administrator now also serves as the point person for a building in the district.

While before- and after-school tutoring is gone for now, the district plans to place tutors in the buildings to work with students during the school day.

"I think this has forced us all to be accountable as to what our roles are and to make sure that we are doing what we need to do to make sure our children are getting the best education possible," Mrs. Skezas said. "We all have to step up to the plate."


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com ; 412-851-1512.


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