For public schools, the year brought big cuts
Share with others:
In public education circles, 2011 was the year that officials quickly learned how to do more with less.
No relief was provided from the federal No Child Left Behind mandate that the state's 500 school districts continue to move students toward proficiency in math and reading.
Yet, the state budget provided nearly $900 million less in funding for public schools.
"I've been with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association for more than 31 years and this was by far the toughest budget that districts have faced in that time," association executive director Tom Gentzel said. "The big story is that because of the sea change in school funding, there were dramatic cuts."
The reduction in state funds came at a time when many local districts already were seeing a drop in their local tax revenues because of the poor economy.
The result was a significant number of teacher and support staff furloughs, program reductions and eliminations, and increases in class sizes across the state. Some districts started to charge fees to students who participate in extracurricular activities.
In addition to supporting the funding cut, Gov. Tom Corbett and state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis announced that they believe competition is good for traditional public education and both have promoted alternatives to public schools -- charter schools and vouchers for public school students to use to attend private school.
"I think the big change in education with this governor is that the accountability model they tried to instill with No Child Left Behind has now morphed into a business model of competition, marketing and public relations," West Mifflin Area superintendent Daniel Castagna said. "The NCLB was about putting resources into place to make sure every child succeeds. This model takes away resources and forces districts to spend time on marketing."
Eliminated in the governor's budget, and approved by the Legislature, were the reimbursements that districts previously received for tuition they pay for students who choose to attend charter schools. In the past, districts received a reimbursement of about 30 percent of what they paid in charter school tuition.
School leaders, who had lobbied for the reimbursement level to be increased, were shocked at its total elimination.
Also eliminated in the state budget were state accountability block grants, used by a number of districts to fund full-day kindergarten, and educational assistance grants, used for after-school tutoring programs.
"This budget is bad for students. This budget puts the state's budget problems on the backs of students," Ron Cowell, a former state legislator who is president of the Education Policy and Leadership Council in Harrisburg, said after the state budget presentation in March.
Because less wealthy districts rely more on state funding than wealthier districts, the poorest districts were hurt the most by the budget.
Among the local districts who lost the most were Pittsburgh Public Schools, Clairton, Duquesne, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.
While West Mifflin Area wasn't among the districts that had the largest cuts in state funding, it was among the districts that felt the combined pinch of reduced local revenues due to commercial reassessments and a reduction in state funding.
As a result, the board was forced to cut 47 jobs, eliminate the freshman academy at the high school and the team teaching approach at the middle school, and consolidate bus routes and stops, resulting in students having to walk up to four-tenths of a mile to catch their bus.
Other districts where furloughs were necessary included Woodland Hills, which reduced its administrative staff by 40 percent and laid off nine elementary and 26 secondary teachers; Steel Valley, which furloughed 40.5 teachers; Highlands, which cut 20 teachers; and Duquesne, which eliminated 11 teaching positions.
The Pittsburgh Public Schools board is looking to eliminate 398 teaching positions and recently offered buyouts to staff. Earlier this year, the district furloughed 23 paraprofessionals and 31 teachers and cut 217 positions among its central office and administrative staff.
In Sto-Rox, the high school track team was cut as was the after-school tutoring program, but furloughs were averted when all employees agreed to a wage freeze.
The Seneca Valley School District eliminated 69 employees and reduced the number of high school business teachers from nine to two. The district also enacted a 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.
Bethel Park imposed a flat $50 pay-to-play fee, and Peters is charging $90 for high school sports, $35 for middle school sports, $45 for band and $10 for high school activities.
While the budget cuts were the most prominent news in public education in 2011, Mr. Gentzel said he believes the bigger news is what didn't happen in education this year: the Legislature's failure to pass an education reform package sought by the governor that would have included vouchers, an expansion of the state's Education Improvement Tax Credit and an overhaul of the state's charter school law.
While the Senate passed a voucher bill in October, there were not enough votes in the House for vouchers or other education reforms supported by the governor when the issues were raised last week.
"I think [legislators] finally got the message that this is a lot of effort in the wrong direction," Mr. Gentzel said.
While some lawmakers vow to renew their efforts toward an education reform package in the new year, others in Harrisburg said they don't expect voucher legislation to come to the table in 2012 because the topic is too controversial for a legislative election year.
Mr. Gentzel said there are no indications at this point that education will take another big hit in the state budget in 2012.
Last week, however, state budget officials announced that year-end tax collections would be down by at least $500 million, setting the stage for another difficult budget year. State budget Secretary Charles Zogby declined to speculate on whether local public schools could see further cuts when Mr. Corbett unveils his budget plan Feb. 7.
Even without a drastic cut, Mr. Gentzel said, required increases in contributions to employee pension funds are expected to strain district budgets.
"I think we are going to see more and more students paying fees, even larger class sizes and more programs eliminated," Mr. Gentzel said.
First Published December 29, 2011 12:00 am