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Public school administrators voice concerns at legislative forum in Homestead

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 4:51 a.m.

Public school administrators said on Thursday in Homestead that “adequate, consistent, fair and equitable” state funding is a top priority.

“We need funding that is reliable,” Pennsylvania School Boards Association interim executive director Stuart Knade told a legislative forum at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's offices.

The second annual AIU forum brought together a panel of 13 that included state senators and representatives and legislative staffers.

It came two days after Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a 1.7 percent or $90 million increase in a 2013-14 basic education subsidy that otherwise remains at the $5.5 billion level approved for 2012-13.

“It still doesn't put us where we were several years ago,” McKeesport Area Superintendent Timothy Gabauer said.

“From here there will be compromise,” Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, said. “There will be issues. This is a process that will go well into June.”

The governor proposed pension reform. He said he opposes cutting the benefits of retirees or changing the accounts of current employees, but wants future hires to sign on to a 401(a) defined contribution plan similar to 401(k) private sector plans.

“Through meaningful pension reform, this budget will provide another $140 million dollars in pension savings for school districts across the state,” Corbett said Tuesday.

Knade agreed that meaningful pension reform is needed.

“It is killing us, the steady hike in the employer compensation rates,” Knade said about schedules set by the state Public School Employees Retirement System.

The rate in 2012-13 is 42 percent higher than in 2011-12 and is scheduled to continue rising over the next two decades.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa Jr., D-Forest Hills, whose district includes Homestead, said Senate Democrats are “very much concerned” about the pension proposal.

“Changing the multipliers is probably going to be the most difficult to achieve,” Costa said.

That's a proposed reduction of the multiplier in the formula used to determine future pension benefits.

PSBA also wants measures that reduce or eliminate the financial burden of charter school costs on local districts.

“Our schools are really strapped for cash,” said Jamie Baxter, director of legislative policy and advocacy for AIU, which serves 42 suburban Allegheny County school districts. “We hope that any new mandates that come out of the General Assembly are adequately funded.”

Costa said “there is movement by (the Corbett) administration to go further” in favor of charter schools.

Not every member of the Senate majority goes along with the Republican governor.

“I'm not going to vote for a charter school piece of legislation unless there is a level playing field across the board,” said Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler Township, whose daughter is a first-grade teacher in Shaler Area.

AIU executive director Linda Hippert applauded Vulakovich's understanding.

“He met with us for about 2½ hours,” Hippert said. “He is a listener.”

“My district has funds,” said West Jefferson Hills school director Shauna D'Alessandro, who also represents Allegheny County on the PSBA board. “But (charter schools have) cost my district $1,360,000 as of two months ago.”

Meanwhile, Clairton spends $100,000 to bus students to Propel schools in McKeesport and Homestead because it is required to do so by law.

“The school district doesn't bus its own students,” said Clairton school director Roger Tachoir, a member of the AIU board. “To bus our whole school district it would cost us $500,000.”

Others at the AIU forum included Jennifer Halaszynski, chief of staff for Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, and aides to House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, and Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

“It is encouraging that the (lawmakers and legislative staffers) appear genuinely concerned about the welfare and the future of public education,” Steel Valley Superintendent Edward Wehrer said.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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