Pa. offers guidelines for school districts eyeing closure
February 25, 2016 11:31 PM
By Karen Langley / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — With state funding for schools again scheduled to run out, the Department of Education is offering school districts guidance on how to close their doors, though state officials say they do not know of any impending closures.
The partial state budget enacted in late December includes about half a year of the main K-12 education funding line, and the final installment of the approved funding went out Thursday, according to the governor’s office. Unless legislators and the governor act, that leaves schools without the funding they normally would receive for the second half of the fiscal year.
The Department of Education has been receiving inquiries from school districts about what to do if they are forced to shut down schools, said Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf. The department responded with a document, dated Feb. 23, with a list of suggestions “drafted as a resource to assist in the development of possible actions by school districts contemplating a closure.” Nicole Reigelman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the department sent the document this week to intermediate units, which provide services to school districts.
“We are not suggesting that this means any school district is going to be closed or that closure is imminent,” Mr. Sheridan said.
Education associations in the state also said they did not know of school districts that are about to close. But many districts are facing difficult decisions about how to pay their bills. A survey earlier this month by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association found that 63 percent of the 195 responding districts will not make it through the year without borrowing funds.
At the Clairton City School District, Superintendent Ginny Hunt said the district should be able to pay its employees until the end of April.
“Are we contemplating closing? I don’t think we have an alternative. I really don’t,” Ms. Hunt said. “When the majority of your funding comes from the state and the federal government, yeah, you are in a bind.”
After seeing the memo from the state, she said the recommended process appeared complex and discouraging. The memo advises officials to develop plans to educate students in grades K-12, to review collective bargaining agreements and to plan how to pay debt service, among other recommendations.
In Erie, Superintendent Jay Badams said he believes the school district has enough money to get through March and into April. “While we appreciate the guidance, we’re surely hopeful if there isn’t a budget by then there will be another disbursement of emergency funding,” he said.
The lack of state funding for schools is a result of disagreement between Mr. Wolf and the Republicans controlling the General Assembly over the budget and other issues. In late December, Mr. Wolf signed a Republican-passed budget but used a line-item veto to reduce funding for education and other areas in an effort to draw legislators back to the negotiating table. The House and Senate have begun hearings on the next year’s budget, but there has not been agreement on school funding for the current year.
Hannah Barrick, director of advocacy at the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said that even closing a school district would not eliminate costs like debt payments and charter school bills.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley
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