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Auditor general: Ailing Sto-Rox, Duquesne school districts need more help from state

| Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 12:00 p.m.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Friday he will conduct hearings this fall to seek a comprehensive solution to a growing financial crisis facing Pennsylvania's poorest school districts.

DePasquale, a York County Democrat, released a pair of audits on the Duquesne City and Sto-Rox school districts.

He said the two are among a number of poor school districts struggling in the face of declining state subsidies and soaring tuition payments to charter and cyber-charter schools as families leave their home schools.

“Our most recent audits show that Duquesne City School District is over the cliff financially; and Sto-Rox School District is teetering on the edge,” DePasquale said during a news conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.

He said auditors, who have completed nearly 200 routine school audits in the first nine months of the year, have found similar issues in other poor school districts, including Chester-Upland in Delaware County and Reading in Berks County.

Duquesne's court-appointed receiver, Paul B. Long, said Duquesne is now in financial recovery. But he conceded that charter school tuition, which can run as high as $30,000 a year for each special education student, is a challenge.

DePasquale said Duquesne and Sto-Rox, which have an economically depressed tax base, could embrace every recommendation his auditors made and still come up short.

“The forces are simply too large,” DePasquale said. He added that the “victims” of the system include children who attend the financially struggling schools, teachers who are furloughed and elderly taxpayers who shoulder rising property taxes.

Pennsylvania charter schools enroll 119,000 of the state's 1.8 million K-12 public school students and receive about $1.1 billion in tax funds. The system was developed to give parents an alternative to their school districts.

Home school districts pay charter schools' tuition based on a formula that calculates the district's cost per child.

DePasquale is calling for the establishment of a baseline rate for cyber charter tuition based on actual costs and on revisions to guidelines for lease reimbursements for brick-and-mortar charter schools.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, endorsed DePasquale's proposals. He posted comments on his Twitter account: “Poorest districts suffer most. Needs to change.”

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said the agency does not ignore struggling districts.

“The department stands by ready to provide technical assistance to districts that are experiencing financial difficulties; however, it is incumbent upon the district's management team and elected school board to effectively manage the district's finances,” Eller said.

Calls for charter school-funding reforms grew louder last month after federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh unsealed an 11-count criminal indictment charging Nicholas Trombetta, the founder of the state's largest cyber charter school, with skimming $1 million for himself from the school.

Stakeholders on both sides of the debate, ranging from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to top Democratic leaders and public and charter school officials, have said they would welcome a serious discussion aimed at charter school reforms.

“We have always said that the funding system is out of whack,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “We may have some disagreements on where it is out of whack, but I don't think there is anybody on any side of the education issue who thinks it is not.”

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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