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Tax Dollars

School districts say their financial conditions are getting worse

Jamie Martines
| Thursday, June 7, 2018, 2:12 p.m.

The financial outlook of school districts across the state is grim, and at least 40 percent of the state's 500 school districts expect to include a tax hike next year, according to an annual report released by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators Thursday.

The report details the results of a survey offered to all 500 school districts in Pennsylvania. Between April and May , 265 districts sent in responses, according to the report.

As districts finalize budgets and prepare for the 2018-19 fiscal year — which starts July 1 — 48 percent of respondents said that they expect their school district's financial condition to be worse than in 2017-18.

"We're back where we always are at this point," with many school districts looking to cut programs and increase property taxes in order to stay afloat, said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

The organization represents 3,000 school business officials across the state.

For 2018-19, 77 percent of surveyed districts expect to include property tax increases in their final budgets, the report said. Increasing mandated costs — especially pension costs — charter school tuition and special education costs continue to be among the biggest financial pressures district said they face, Himes said.

Among the survey's most troubling findings were plans some districts have to reduce or cut full-day kindergarten programs, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, which represents over 800 superintendents and other administrators.

"Those kids are probably going to be behind for the better part of their education career," DiRocco said of students who could miss out on kindergarten if those programs are eliminated.

In addition, 80 percent of districts said that they plan to shift staff across schools or grades, which could have a negative impact on students if teachers are not prepared to teach a new grade or subject area, DiRocco said.

This year, the survey included new questions about school safety.

Though 51 percent of districts said that they plan to defer general building maintenance and 31 percent will delay new building or renovation projects, 57 percent of districts said that they are considering infrastructure changes to make buildings safer.

Many districts also said that they are considering hiring additional school security personnel, counselors and social workers. They're also looking into additional training for school security personnel and other staff.

"It's very difficult for school districts to try and find money in their budgets for all of these needs," DiRocco said, adding that districts will need state and federal funds to help offset new safety-related costs.

The full report is available on the PASA and PASBO websites.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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