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Highlands, New Ken-Arnold earn spots on 'Most Screwed' school districts list

| Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, 12:46 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands High School teacher Michelle Dickerson, right, goes over a paper as she teaches her AP U.S. History class at the high school on Thursday, October 3, 2013.

Highlands School District and New Kensington-Arnold School District are two of 11 Pennsylvania districts on a list called “Most Screwed Local Public School Districts Update 2009-2011.”

The list of 98 districts nationwide is based on three-year averages for poverty rates and state/local funding for all school districts compared to districts in the same labor market. It aims to develop a picture of how fair school funding is, particularly at the state level.

The “Most Screwed” up-date was compiled by Bruce Baker, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J.

Essentially, Baker's report shows that, in many states, instead of getting more state and local financial support, school districts get less as their poverty rates grow. Pennsylvania is no exception, he said.

‘Screwed' formula

In Baker's formula, to be considered a “screwed school district,” a district must:

• Receive state and local revenue per pupil that is less than 95 percent of the three- year average for all districts in the same labor market.

• Have an adjusted census poverty rate for students ages 5 to 17 that is 150 percent, or greater, of the three-year average for all districts in the same labor market.

The Pittsburgh Labor Market includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The benchmark poverty rate is 14 percent while the revenue benchmark is $13,647.

According to the “Most Screwed” list, Highlands has an adjusted poverty rate of 21 percent. That is 50 percent greater than the benchmark for the other districts in the labor market.

On the matter of state and local revenue, despite its higher poverty rate, per-student funding for Highlands is only 90.7 percent of the benchmark or $12,378.

“The districts (listed) not only don't have the ‘same' total state and local revenue per pupil than surrounding districts,” Baker wrote. “They have less and, in some cases, they have a lot less. In many cases, their child poverty rate is more than twice that of the surrounding districts that continue to have more resources.”

That just about perfectly describes New Kensington-Arnold's situation.

According to the “Screwed Schools Update,” the district has the Alle-Kiski Valley's highest adjusted poverty rate for 5- to 17-year-olds at 26 percent. It equates to almost twice the labor market benchmark.

At the same time, New Kensington-Arnold receives only about 93 percent of the benchmark figure for state and local revenue. That comes to $12,692 per student.

Needing more

Baker's report states: “Put very simply, districts with higher student needs than surrounding districts in the same labor market just don't require the same total revenue per pupil to get the job done. They require more.”

There are – or should be – two goals of state finance systems for education, Baker claims.

“Step one is to evaluate every district's funding target, which is what the (Gov. Ed) Rendell model attempted to do,” Baker said. “The next step is to figure out how much can be covered locally and how much can be covered by the state.

“Pennsylvania is accomplishing neither of those,” he said.

Highlands Business Manager Jon Rupert noted that, even if cuts to education are equal across the board for all districts, the resulting pain is not for poorer districts. That is because the relief for that pain comes primarily from one source, the real estate tax base for each school district.

“When you don't have state funding, the Fox Chapels can raise five times what I have,” Rupert said. “Their millage brings in probably $4.5 million on a mill and we bring in about $600,000. If they cut both districts $500,000, who is going to suffer more?”

“What he (Baker) is trying to point out is that school funding doesn't factor that (poverty) in,” said Highlands Superintendent Michael Bjalobok. “You are just given that straight allocation and there should be additional funding for schools with higher poverty levels and that does not happen.”

Baker's analysis was not a revelation for John Pallone, New Kensington-Arnold's superintendent.

“Based on my one-year study of this district, no, I am not surprised,” Pallone said. “When you look at the demographics of our community with the needs that we have, we have to demand more funding.”

He said a major problem for many districts is financing special-education needs, which includes children dealing with learning, emotional and physical problems, many of which are due to lower socioeconomic status. Pallone said the state has capped its assistance for special education at 16 percent of a district's enrollment. If the number of special education students is actually 20 percent, covering those additional students is the district's problem, he said.

Jeff McVey, New Kensington-Arnold's business manager, said the district's per pupil cost for educating a special education student was $12,586 in the 2010-11 school year and the state provided $5,345 of that in special-education subsidy per student. That amounts to 42 percent. In 2011-12, he said the special-education cost per pupil was $12,094 with the state providing $5,235 in special-education subsidy per student. That comes to just 43 percent.

Bjalobok said, “With that need comes an additional need for services, providing more costly services to students who are coming from an environment of poverty. Special services can be come quite costly.”

He said the rise of technology in public schools is an example in which students whose families are living below the poverty level need help to compete with other students.

“You have kids coming with less because they are coming out of poverty,“ Bjalobok said. “Our kids don't have the laptop at home to do the homework on. They have to try to get it done here or go over to the library or the community center to get it done there.”

Baker concurs with that view, noting that, although teaching staff is the key element for school districts, it not the only one.

“In addition, higher-need districts need to be able to both provide the additional program/service supports necessary for helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds (including smaller classes in early grades) while still maintaining advanced and enriched course options,” he said in his report.

The logical source

Bjalobok believes the “Screwed Schools Update” is on target with its overall assessment of the financing difficulties faced by school districts.

He said because learning problems relate to communities with high poverty rates, their districts can't rely on local revenues such as real estate taxes to supply the money needed to attack those problems. He said the state is the most logical source. But getting state legislators to correct the state education funding formula to account for poverty is the major obstacle.

“They just acknowledge that it is a problem and they are talking about it,” an exasperated Bjalobok said. “They have been talking about it for six years. The second-largest legislature in the country has been talking about it for six years.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or

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