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Parents, students gather in Oakland to protest education cuts

| Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012

Public school parents and students on Saturday protested proposed state funding cuts they and others say will increase class size and eliminate elective classes and early-childhood education programs.

"For them to cut school funding this way is just wrong," said Verletha Torres of North Oakland, whose five children have all attended Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Organized by Yinzercation, a school-funding advocacy group, the rally in a frigid Schenley Plaza in Oakland drew about 250 people. Torres' daughter, Tia Torres, 17, said her school, University Prep, is laying off a music teacher. She plans to speak on Tuesday at a similar protest in Harrisburg.

"Cutting education is cutting the future," said Tia Torres, who plans to study physical therapy at Spellman College in Atlanta.

Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a $27.1 billion state budget last week that he called "lean and demanding" and promised to not raise taxes or spend more than the state has.

The biggest cuts in K-12 spending would be made in the accountability block grant program to benefit early childhood education, which would lose at least $94 million. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis has said the budget provides financial flexibility for local school districts and ensures the accountability of teachers and school leaders.

Those cuts are on top of a $900 million reduction in state education funding for the current school year and a $250 million cut in accountability block grants. Next school year, the state's school districts face an increase of $300 million in pension payments.

Reduced state education funding reverberates across the state in nearly every district, education experts say.

"The state budget will be indiscriminate in how it affects school districts. It will not matter if a district is small, large, rural, urban, wealthy or poor. It will mean more layoffs and program cuts," Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business officials, said in a phone interview.

The state's proposed K-12 education budget for 2012-13 includes no increases for Social Security payments, student transportation costs, pensions or for basic education funding, Himes said.

"A lot of other areas of the budget -- higher education, transportation -- have sustained even bigger cuts," he said.

Act 1 of 2006, which prohibits school districts from raising property taxes beyond the rate of inflation without voter approval, ties the hands of school districts.

School officials spent last week scrambling to see exactly what cuts might mean for their districts.

"It appears that our state funding is pretty similar to last year. But any increase is not sufficient to keep up with cost increases," said Christopher Ursu, business manager at the Northgate School District.

Northgate has eliminated full-day kindergarten because of state funding reductions.

Despite losing about $1 million in state aid this school year, officials in the Hempfield School District plan to keep full-day kindergarten because of its popularity, said Jude Abraham, the district's business manager.

"This year's state cuts could have been worse," he said. "Hopefully the numbers stay the same."

Tara McElfresh of Point Breeze said her children's school, Linden Elementary, is losing a vice principal and a science teacher. It has reduced hours for the librarian and not replaced two homeroom teachers who retired.

"Its music program will be cut," she said. "There will be no instruments."

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