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Struggling Pennsylvania schools planning to cut instructional programs

Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Pennsylvania students this fall should expect more crowded classrooms and less help for struggling students, according to a survey by two statewide groups that found two-thirds of districts surveyed plan to cut instructional programs to cope with lean times.

Covering 187 of the state's 501 districts, the survey blamed flat revenue growth and accelerating pension demands for driving up financial pressure on schools. More than half of districts surveyed predicted their financial position would deteriorate next school year.

“The financial challenges are continuing, and, in some places, they are worse than ever,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, which teamed with the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials to sponsor the survey.

Citing reductions to elective course offerings, professional development and pre-kindergarten programming, Buckheit said school officials face unprecedented pressure.

“They're still using their fund balance to supplement the budget,” he said. “It's like dipping into your savings to pay your grocery bill. You can only sustain that for so long.”

Of those surveyed, 75 percent expect to reduce instructional programming and extracurriculars in 2014.

The survey estimated the state lost about 20,000 teacher and support staff positions through furloughs and attrition in the past two years, including 300 from Pittsburgh Public Schools alone.

A contingent of local public school advocates and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers plan to rally on Tuesday in Harrisburg to amplify that point and call for increased education funding.

Administrators for the Mars Area and Aliquippa school districts both reported tapping into their fund balances — in line with seven out of 10 districts surveyed, though neither plans to increase taxes.

Aliquippa, a small district serving 1,100 students in southeastern Beaver County, was placed on a voluntary financial watch this year. Act 141 of 2012 authorized an Early Warning System by which the state can assist districts that report difficulties managing their own finances.

The designation is not a reprimand, said Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Aliquippa is not alone.

Last year, Chester Upland, Duquesne City, York City and Harrisburg were dubbed “financially distressed” as Reading, Steelton-Highspire and Wilkinsburg Borough joined the watch list.

More affluent districts such as North Allegheny Schools are able to avoid drawing from their fund balance, which recently translated to a bond rating upgrade by Standard & Poors. Board members plan to consider a recommended tax increase on Wednesday.

Ron Joseph, the new chief operations officer at Pittsburgh Public Schools, said he expects a substantial deficit next school year.

The district's board of directors adopted a resolution in May not to exceed Pennsylvania's Act 1 tax index of 1.7 percent.

The index sets the maximum tax increase a district can levy without seeking voter approval.

“Last year, we closed seven schools,” he said. “We've made big changes. I definitely don't expect the state to pass a budget that will solve all our problems. I'm just hoping we don't have to experience any further cuts.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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