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Highlands rallies for equitable, adequate school funding in state

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 7:21 a.m.
Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands School District Superintendent Michael Bjalobok speaks about the importance of education during the 'Proud to Be Public Education” rally held at Highlands Middle School on Wednesday, May 1, 2013.
Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Abby Wolfe, 4, of Leechburg, gets her face painted by Amy Phillips of Fancy Faces during the 'Proud to Be Public Education” rally held at Highlands Middle School on Wednesday, May 1, 2013.

Highlands School Board President Carrie Fox drew inspiration from a high school sophomore's essay for her remarks at a rally Wednesday to celebrate public education.

“He wrote: ‘I value public education because it gives everyone an opportunity to work hard and be rewarded, but also requires hard work in order to succeed and accomplish one's goals,' ” said Fox, who said she read the essay at a Pennsylvania School Boards Association conference. “I thought that was a pretty powerful statement from a 10th-grader.”

Highlands School District and its teachers' union held a rally in front of Highlands Middle School in Natrona Heights to bring attention to why they are proud be a part of public education, and to talk about how state cuts and the funding formula for charter schools are hurting school districts. About 50 people attended.

“I don't think anybody is looking for tons of money to come our way, or is saying that money is the answer to fix everything,” said Megan Keener, a learning-support teacher at Highlands Middle School. “But it definitely helps with staffing, technology and programs. It's hard to reach your fullest potential without (those things).”

Highlands Education Association President Randy Rybak talked about the many ways that Highlands and other public schools provide a well-rounded education.

“Inside these brick-and-mortar schools, we afford our students the opportunity to learn to communicate effectively, excel to their highest potential academically and to grow emotionally and socially,” he said.

But he worries that inadequate, inequitable funding could hurt the progress districts have made in improving educational programs.

Gov. Tom Corbett's 2013-14 budget provides $9.55 billion for public school education in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. The basic education subsidy, which is considered the backbone of public education funding, is proposed at $5.5 billion — about 1.7 percent more than the current school year's budget.

Special education would get the same amount of state money for the sixth straight year.

“It's really time we stop hijacking the public school's funding and allow us to move forward with our mission to educate kids for the future,” said Highlands Superintendent Michael Bjalobok.

He and several speakers referred to the $1 billion in education funding cuts in the 2011-12 state budget — a result of the end of federal stimulus money that was used to make up the difference when the state reduced its share.

Corbett's administration says the cut was because federal stimulus dollars dried up and not because the state cut the amount it provides for education.

State Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said he doesn't buy it.

“It is not true,” he said. “Some was; the majority of it was not.”

Dermody said he plans to “rail against” the proposed budget and fight for more funding for traditional public education.

“I need to carry the message back to Harrisburg that says: ‘Step up for our teachers, our school district and fund public education. Fund it so that our children can get the education they deserve. It's serious when class sizes increase.' ”

Dermody said he also will push for legislation to make charter and cyber-charter schools, where classes are conducted via the Internet, just as accountable as traditional public schools.

Charter schools are funded by traditional public schools through tuition payments for each student from the district who attends the charter, but aren't held to the same scrutiny for how they spend their money or the same educational standards on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test.

Highlands sends about $1 million to charter schools for the 100 students who attend them.

“There is a place for charter schools … but they are public schools with a different set of rules,” Bjalobok said. “We've been asking for fairness and equity for years; everybody knows that it doesn't cost what they're getting to run a cyber-charter.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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