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School leaders lose confidence in getting help from lawmakers as funding squeezed

| Sunday, July 10, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

The Woodland Hills School District last year closed buildings and furloughed 14 staff members in order to save money.

This year, the district cut an additional five staff positions, increased property taxes and refinanced its debt in order to balance its $81 million budget.

“The cycle is never going to end under the current framework,” Superintendent Alan Johnson said. “The system needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt. Right now, I'm not feeling that that's going to happen any time soon.”

Johnson is among 97 percent of district leaders who feel the same way, according to a survey from state school administrator groups.

Legislators in Harrisburg are once again late passing — and funding — a state budget, which was due July 1. And even if lawmakers increase general education funding, administrators don't expect the state to provide them with relief as they struggle to pay rising health care, pension and charter school costs.

“I think we're losing confidence in state policymakers to adequately address the challenges going forward,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “This environment is going to continue to exist for years to come.”

The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials recently released an annual report that said that half of school districts plan to cut programming in order to save money. Forty-six percent plan to reduce staff, and 34 percent believe their class sizes will increase as a result.

Even with an additional $200 million in basic education funding proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf, 85 percent of the 355 districts surveyed said they would raise property taxes this year.

The Brentwood Borough School District's planned 2016-17 millage rate of 29.533 is one of the highest in Allegheny County after it raised taxes by about 1.3 mills. The district didn't lay off any teachers this year, though several were furloughed last year, and some teachers who retired were not replaced.

“The state has taken a small step in proposing $200 million for education, but it is well known that this amount is insufficient to keep school budgets in alignment with increasing costs in other areas,” Superintendent Amy Burch wrote in an email. “If the state continues to force unfunded mandates, the achievement gaps will remain.”

Increases in costs for health care, pensions, charter schools and special education are expected to reach $600 million this year, Buckheit said.

“$200 million, while it's a lot of money and we appreciate it, it's not enough,” Buckheit said.

The Fox Chapel School District dedicated funds in its reserves to cover rising pension and health care costs, but raised property taxes by about 1.9 percent and won't be replacing the eight teachers who recently retired, said Doug McCausland, the district's director of business affairs. More than 70 percent of the district's funding already comes from local revenues.

“I don't even always plan for it,” McCausland said about the district's state subsidy.

That tactic was especially useful last year, since the full payment from the state didn't come until March with the resolution of a nine-month budget impasse among legislators.

The impasse “put a pall” over school district leaders and made them realize they are mostly on their own when it comes to budgeting, Buckheit said.

“This is pretty much the trend that we've seen over the last six years,” Buckheit said. “Nothing has really changed, and the budget stalemate has exacerbated an already difficult situation.”

The Keystone Oaks School District, which added a science and technology program for its elementary schools and purchased Chromebooks for students this year, also raised property taxes by about 2.4 percent.

Sharon Gologram, director of fiscal services for the district, credits the district's cautious spending and prior cuts for its current financial stability.

“I think we're going to have to be more creative in going more for local resources in increasing our revenues each year,” she said.

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or lbehrman@tribweb.com.

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