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Pennsylvania's public school staffing at 10-year low

| Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, 11:00 p.m.

The number of public school teachers and support staffers employed in Pennsylvania began falling the year before Gov. Tom Corbett took office and passed his first budget, according to state employment figures that show school staffing is at its lowest point in a decade.

An attack ad this week by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf blames Corbett for cutting state education funding, and his website says those cuts “removed 20,000 teachers from the classroom,” but neither notes the downward trend was under way.

“Corbett cut a billion dollars from education,” Wolf tells the camera. “Now almost 80 percent of school districts plan to raise property taxes.”

The Republican Party of Pennsylvania shot back, deriding the statement as a lie and telling Wolf to remove the ad.

Billy Pitman, Corbett's campaign spokesman, said stimulus funding “artificially propped up” school budgets.

“Pension costs need to be addressed for school districts, not only to have more resources to put directly into the classroom but to provide, in the long term, some kind of property tax relief,” Pitman said.

Pennsylvania lost about 11,200 teachers and staff during Corbett's term, according to state data.

Last September, the academic year began with the lowest number of employees at Pennsylvania public school districts since there were 286,600 in 2003, according to the state's Center for Workforce Information and Analysis.

Pennsylvania's public education system peaked at 304,800 teachers and staff in 2009 and then fell in 2010 and 2011 to 290,300. It reached 279,100 in September 2013.

Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, pointed to sinking state aid and rising pension obligations.

“It's a revenue and expenditure issue,” Himes said. “That's why this problem is not unique to a size, a location, a wealthy or a poor district.”

Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said the $1 billion that Corbett's detractors accuse him of cutting was federal money used to temporarily bolster state funding from 2009 to 2011. Corbett's first budget coincided with the expiration of the stimulus and a 4.19 percent decrease in education employment, the largest decrease during his term.

Growing pension contributions have crowded out funding at the state and local levels.

This year, the Corbett administration authorized $10 billion in state education funding, a new high for state-only expenditures. That figure includes $1 billion for pension costs. Four years ago, the state spent less than $300 million, Eller said.

“Pension costs are starting to be one big driving factor in school district budgets,” Eller said. “Districts are being forced to make decisions they may not want to make regarding staffing.”

Mark Price, a labor economist with the progressive Keystone Research Center, said the decision not to replace stimulus money with state funds contributed to downsizing.

“Policymakers were left with a choice,” he said. “You either find the money somewhere or you cut.”

An annual survey from the state School Business Officials association and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators found about 87 percent of up to 279 school districts surveyed have decreased staff since 2010, mostly through attrition. Next year, 14 percent of districts surveyed plan to furlough teachers. The state has about 500 school districts.

This summer, Corbett promoted a plan to change benefits for future state and school employees. In the long term, his administration says, it would reduce districts' contributions to pension funds.

Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center, said increased pension payments do not benefit students.

“Programs for students are still being cut,” he said.

Nathan Benefield, senior policy analyst with the free-market think tank Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit, said criticism of state education funding does not take into account where the money goes.

“We're actually spending more than ever before, but it's not simply going towards more teachers. It's going toward paying off pension debts and paying off debt and construction costs,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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