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Education

School districts grapple with tough choices as Gov. Wolf threatens budget veto

| Monday, March 21, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Teachers in the East Allegheny School District will be getting their last paycheck this week, unless the district can secure more funding.

Superintendent Donald Mac Fann said he is scrambling to get a second loan, while also consulting with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to see which payments — retirement contributions, for instance — can be delayed without incurring a penalty from the state.

“Our doors will remain open, our teachers will come to work,” he said.

Pennsylvania has been operating without a completed budget since last summer, depriving school districts of the majority of the money they receive annually from the state.

As Democratic leaders in Harrisburg talk about gaining “leverage” for negotiations, some schools in Western Pennsylvania are looking at long-term cuts, including textbooks, teacher development and technology.

Like many others, Mac Fann's small suburban district has trimmed all “non-essential” expenditures while scrounging for money to keep its doors open through the rest of the school year.

“What I think school districts are going to have to do in the very near future, and what East Allegheny has already done this year, is scrutinize what is a want and what is a need,” Mac Fann said. “Unfortunately, that's not always what's best.”

Amy Burch, superintendent of the Brentwood School District, said she appreciates Gov. Tom Wolf's insistence on more money for public education, but in the meantime, her district has had to make cuts and delay plans that will directly affect her students.

On Monday, the Brentwood school board tabled a $250,000 contract to install Wi-Fi in all of the district's buildings for at least a year, Burch said. The district has put a hold on all professional development activities for its teachers and decided not to contribute its half of the funding for Brentwood Day Camp, a summer day camp for children paid for jointly by the district and Brentwood Borough. Cutting those two expenses will save the district about $10,000, Burch said.

The board may explore the possibility of making parents pay more for their children to participate in athletics or activities like marching band, a measure that could save the district another $10,000.

“Obviously, we have to pay the bills first,” Burch said.

The McKeesport Area School District stopped all expenses related to travel this year, business manager David Seropian said. The district's robotics team recently had to raise several thousand dollars on its own for a trip to Ohio and find alternative transportation because the district could not provide it, he said.

If there's no state budget by May, the district may be forced to start laying off employees, Seropian said.

“We're still hanging on as far as making decisions, but we're operating as if there will be no state budget,” he said.

Wolf said last week he intends to veto the latest Republican budget proposal, arguing that it does not provide enough education funding or address a looming $2 billion deficit.

The Republicans' $6 billion spending plan is designed to complete a $30 billion spending package and contains just over $3.1 billion for public school instruction and operations, which would bring the total appropriated for the year to $5.9 billion, a $200 million increase.

Wolf originally sought a $400 million increase; a bipartisan deal that collapsed in December contained $350 million.

Senate minority leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, told reporters Monday that he was confident the Democrats could uphold Wolf's planned veto and find a way to bring the nine-month budget battle to a close.

“The way out is to continue to talk about what we have to do for 2016-17, but also recognizing we have to retain leverage to close out '15-16 in order to get '16-17 done,” Costa said. “Where I don't want to be is in a position where '15-16 is closed out (with) no responsible, reasonable budget for '16-17.”

Some districts are in better shape than others and haven't had to borrow money or cut programs that benefit students and teachers. All of them are waiting to see how much funding they will get this year before they can make decisions about cuts for next year.

The Norwin school board on Monday approved a $20 million line of credit with First National Bank, with an interest rate to be determined. John Wilson, director of business affairs, said he expects some of the money to cover payroll and debt service in April.

Aaron Thomas, superintendent of the Cornell School District, said his district hasn't had to borrow yet, but will have to if there is no state budget by June. At that point, the district may also have to reconsider plans to buy new science and math textbooks — which could cost between $20,000 and $30,000 — and cut back on professional development for teachers.

“I hope the end is near, but you never know,” he said.

Staff writer Jacob Tierney contributed to this report. Elizabeth Behrman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at lbehrman@tribweb.com.

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