House Democratic Policy Committee meets in Monessen
Members of the state House Democratic Policy Committee on Tuesday blamed Gov. Tom Corbett's administration for cuts in education funding they claim are hurting local school districts.
It was an opinion shared by local educational leaders who attended a meeting the committee conducted at Monessen High School.
However, some economic development leaders said problems with workforce development in the region extend beyond recent state budget decisions.
State Rep. R. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, said the focus Tuesday was “education as an economic engine.”
“Our goal today at this hearing – which focuses on the symbiotic relationship between education and economic development – is to show how our area and other regions of Pennsylvania have been adversely impacted by inadequate education funding as we strive to spur economic development,” Harhai said.
“Education is a critical component in this effort, as a strong education system translates into an educated work force, which businesses view as a powerful incentive to locate and expand in any given area.
“In fact, the case can be made that to attract new jobs, an educated work force is an absolute necessity.”
The hearing was divided by topic to collect information from educators and economic development leaders.
Superintendents from five Westmoreland County school districts said they have been using reserve funds to balance budgets as a means to limit property tax increases.
They blamed the situation on state funding cuts.
Monessen School District Acting Superintendent Dr. Leanne Spazak said her district has had no reserve funds in three years.
“We are a small district, and unforeseeable expenses can put our budget at risk at any time,” Spazak said.
“If a child moves into the district with special needs or a child needs to be placed in alternative education, this can cost $5,000 to $6,000 per month that was not budgeted for.”
She said state money is crucial to a small districts as Monessen.
“We have already cut all we can cut,” she said. “Throughout the last three years, we have had to furlough teachers and cut programs in order to start building our reserve.”
Belle Vernon Area Superintendent Dr. John Wilkinson said his district proposed furloughs to balance its budget amid rising pension costs and state funding that did not keep pace with expenses.
“It's tough to read off names and tell people ‘You don't have a job next year,'” Wilkinson said. “I have to sleep at night, so I asked the (school) board to slightly increase the retirement incentive.”
Wilkinson said superintendents are held accountable for every penny.
“If you don't have a level playing field, is it really fair?” Wilkinson asked. “Three billion dollars in public education cuts and then $2 billion in tax cuts – how does that equal out?”
Superintendent Dr. Janet Sardon said the Yough School District has had to eliminate programs, a move that contrasts with the district's goal of maximizing student opportunities.
She said local financial contributions equal 53 percent for Yough – compared to the national average of 44 percent.
“We're doing our part to support education through increased local taxes, but how far do we have to go?” Sardon asked.
Jeanette City School District Superintendent Dr. Matthew Hutcheson outlined five challenges his district faces: increased special education costs, cyber school costs, school performance standards, escalating pension costs and attendance.
Economic development leaders discussed workforce development.
Dr. Tuesday Staley, Westmoreland County Community College president, said the school has received several state grants to prepare students for jobs.
One, the Workforce and Economic Development Network for Pennsylvania, has used more than $6.5 million in state Department of Community and Economic Development money to serve 250 manufacturing and technology companies in the county since 1999.
“While WCCC and the commonwealth's other community colleges appreciate the General Assembly's support by including a $3.5 million increase in the community college operating appropriation, the new funding levels still fall short of what is needed to cover the costs of these programs,” Staley said.
Debbie Keefer, Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director, said her organization depends on the DCED to support main street initiatives.
Mon Valley Progress Council Executive Director Joe Kirk said education and economic development are intertwined.
“As a state and even a nation, we face the significant challenges of reconnecting our education system with our economy,” Kirk said. “I say that not as any indictment or accusation.
“The business community needs to continue to articulate what it needs and that jobs they seek to fill represent career opportunities.”
Kirk said high absentee rates and drug use among employees is a major obstacle to a productive workforce.
Jim Smith, president and CEO of the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland, discussed “the importance of education and workforce development to the health and vitality of the regional economy.”
Smith said the county is a bellwether for manufacturing jobs, but companies have not succeeded in attracting young people who often overlook these well-paying jobs for college – and then drop out.
Jason Rigone, Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp. executive director, said state regulations are often cumbersome and time consuming for companies trying to expand and create jobs.
Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.