Struggling Sto-Rox School District faces bleak choices

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When Michael Panza became superintendent of the Sto-Rox School District this year, he quickly discovered the district was in the midst of an all-out financial trauma and his job would be to help the board perform triage to keep it alive.

One wound was the loss of about $1.2 million in state funding this year, caused largely by the end of federal stimulus funds, and another was the district's special education costs beyond the state reimbursement.

But the wound that appeared to be bleeding most profusely was the flow of money for charter school tuition, which has increased from $48,587 in 2001-02 to a projected $2.7 million this year, about 11 percent of the 2011-12 budget.

"When Sto-Rox then takes 11 percent of their budget to pay for charter/cyber education, this results in a reduction of staff and programs," Mr. Panza said.

Currently, about one in six students who live in the Sto-Rox district, which includes Stowe and McKees Rocks, attend a charter school -- about 280 in charter schools and about 1,417 in the district's schools or placed by the district (in alternative or special education programs).

This year, Sto-Rox pays $8,406 for each regular education student who attends a charter school and $19,848 for each special education student. The state funds districts based on the assumption that 16 percent of students receive special education service, but Sto-Rox actually has about 21 percent in its own schools or placements, so it must make up the difference.

Resulting reductions for district students appear to be on the horizon.

On Thursday, Mr. Panza described for the school board the $2 million deficit in the 2012-13 preliminary budget. His proposal for closing that gap includes the furlough of 19 employees, including seven teachers, a behavior specialist, dean of students, speech and language instructor and four paraprofessionals.

School directors cringed when they heard part of the deficit was caused by an unanticipated $400,000 increase in charter school tuition this year. Previously the district received a 30 percent reimbursement on its charter school costs, but that reimbursement was cut starting with the 2011 state budget.

"As a district there is nothing we can do about this. All we can do is keep calling the state to do something," said school director Brian Taylor.

The proposed cuts in Sto-Rox come on top of a system that is already stripped to the bone. To balance budgets in recent years, remedial programs and academic coaches were cut despite the fact that students have not made the federal standard for adequate yearly progress -- known as AYP -- on state exams since 2007.

There are no Advanced Placement courses at the high school, no performing arts electives, no track team, no swimming pool, no school newspaper. While other districts spend upward of $1 million to turf their fields, the Sto-Rox board is looking for $2,200 to hydro seed its rutted football field.

The situation has district officials and some parents wondering exactly how the district will be able to continue to function and provide adequate services and education to its students. They also question decisions made at the state level to divert funding to charter schools from traditional public school districts.

"At the state level, they really need to reconsider their funding. They really need to look at the effect and not just the numbers," said Connie Deem, the mother of two sons, one at Sto-Rox Elementary, the other at Sto-Rox Middle School.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Education Department, wrote in an email: "Charter schools are viable alternatives for students, and as such, a portion of funding follows the student to a charter school."

Mr. Eller also said the Education Department "believes that adequate funding is provided to school districts to operate their academic programs. School districts need to look at their overall expenditures to find economies in their budgets in order to meet the academic needs of their students."

Sto-Rox has never been an affluent district. Currently, 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The original high school was built in the 1920s with a renovation and addition in the 1970s. Paint is peeling from the stairway halls, and large box fans propped into the school's windows provide ventilation on hot days.

This year the entire district staff took a pay freeze. Teachers frequently pay for their own school supplies, and next year, the high school will offer AP Calculus and AP English literature because teachers agreed to teach extra classes for no extra pay.

To make up for the lack of middle school sports, for the past two years, teachers and maintenance staff have organized and coached an intramural basketball program, complete with cheerleaders, for students in grades 5-8.

Teachers who take on extracurricular activities generally do so for no extra pay. Stipends go only to coaches of the major sports and the marching band director, who is also the high school's only music teacher. There are 38 members in the marching band, too few to do formations, so they dance.

New weight room equipment was recently purchased with a $15,000 donation from attorney John Caputo, an alumnus. Mr. Caputo, a former high school football player, said he decided to direct his contribution toward athletes in hopes that it would help some get college scholarships. He said he believes academic programs are more important than sports programs but that, as an individual donor, he did not have enough money to affect the district's academics.

"It's a spit in the ocean is what I did," Mr. Caputo said.

Senior Dontez Ford, a varsity football and basketball player who received a football scholarship to Syracuse University, said his athletic travels showed him that other districts have better facilities. "There are not too many places that aren't nicer. But it makes me feel like I can be competitive anywhere since I started at the bottom," Dontez said.

The district has a long history of academic troubles. In 1999, then-Gov. Tom Ridge declared Sto-Rox among eight "academically distressed" districts because half of its students in grades 5, 8 and 11 for two years scored in the bottom quarter of the state in math or reading on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, known as PSSA, tests. Though remedial programs were created at one point, they were later cut because of finances.

Heather Johnston, president of the Sto-Rox Education Association and a second-grade teacher, said at one time there were six reading specialists, two counselors and a dean of students at the elementary level. Now there is one reading specialist and one counselor, and class sizes have grown from 17 or 18 students to 22 to 25.

Sto-Rox is not alone in feeling pressure from charter schools. It is among a handful of struggling districts in Allegheny County whose budgets are significantly impacted by charter school tuition, including Clairton, Duquesne, Penn Hills, Pittsburgh, Steel Valley, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg.

But for Sto-Rox, the situation is poised to get significantly worse as the Propel charter school organization is hoping to open Propel West, a K-12 charter school in the district that would eventually serve 800 students. Under state law, Sto-Rox residents would have priority for enrollment.

In 2007-2008, the first year Sto-Rox students attended Propel Montour, Sto-Rox charter tuition costs increased from $435,472 the previous year to $1.47 million, with $949,309 going to Propel.

While the Sto-Rox board unanimously rejected the Propel West charter application in November, Propel is working on an amended application to resubmit to the board, said executive director Jeremy Resnick.

"The issue is that Sto-Rox families want a school that is run by Propel. Nobody is chasing them down the street and forcing them to go. Currently there are not enough seats available in Propel schools to make that possible. That's the dynamic that is playing itself out," Mr. Resnick said.

But Mr. Panza said if Sto-Rox loses 800 more students, it also will lose more than $11.5 million in tuition money.

"This is equal to 50 percent of our total anticipated budget for 2012-2013 school year. We would still need to transport students, educate students, feed students and provide for the other mandated services. We would be left with few resources to assist our most at-risk students," Mr. Panza said.

Propel has an impressive academic record. Propel students -- 75 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and 69 percent of whom are minority -- are 41 percent more likely to perform at grade level than their peers in their home districts. In addition, 82 percent of Propel students score at grade level or above, which exceeds the statewide average of 76 percent.

None of the schools in the Sto-Rox districts made AYP on the PSSA tests in 2011. The highest PSSA scores in the district were in math at the elementary level, where 52.9 percent of students scored proficient or above.

While Propel has a proven record of success, Sto-Rox students attend 10 other charter schools, which did not make AYP in 2011. In the communities that make up Sto-Rox -- Stowe and McKees Rocks -- there is a divide between those who want the choice of a charter school and those who worry about what will be left of their public school system as charter schools take more students and more money.

A September public meeting on the Propel West charter application drew more than 200 people. Those who spoke against the charter school expressed concerns about what would happen to the already underfunded school district if it were to lose more students. Those in favor talked about the need for an educational alternative.

"We just want the choice. We are just asking for a different choice for our children," said Elena Archey, whose son, Alex, is in eighth grade at Propel Montour.

Alex transferred to Propel in seventh grade for more challenging academics and performing arts electives. Ms. Archey said she understands the dilemma charter schools have created because of the money drain from the district, which is also a major employer in the community and center of activity during football and basketball seasons.

"We do understand the other side's issue. But if those schools were doing a great job, we wouldn't have left in the first place," Ms. Archey said.

Mrs. Deem said she isn't opposed to charter schools. "But the funding shouldn't come out of the school system, not in lower-income districts like ours."

Tina Nagel, president of the Sto-Rox Elementary PTA, said she is among a core group of parents who raise about $10,000 annually for field trips and class parties. She is such a staunch supporter of the public school system that she said she's willing to raise money for books and school supplies, if needed.

"If you already have a school in the neighborhood, you should work towards making that school better rather than opening a new school. We need to focus on the failing schools," Mrs. Nagel said.

How much longer the district can survive and in what form is a question on the minds of school staff, board members and parents. Another question involves what will happen to students who don't find a place in the charter schools.

Members of the Sto-Rox staff said they'd like to see Gov. Tom Corbett or state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis visit their district to see the effect of funding decisions made at the state level.

"It's disheartening because these kids deserve the best education just like every other child in the state," said high school English teacher Christopher Captline.

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Mary Niederberger:;412-263-1590.


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