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How Do We Save Our Schools? Smart Talk TV

Written by Nell McCormack Abom, Host Smart Talk TV | Feb 1, 2012 3:26 PM

Pennsylvania's 500 school districts feel the triple pinch of rising health care and employee pension costs and a stagnant economy. Revenue growth from real estate taxes -- the main funding source for public schools -- is virtually non-existent, yet schools' operating costs and pension obligations are rising at double-digit rates. How do we save our schools? Join the conversation on Smart Talk, tonight at 8, on witf TV.

Our guests include Ron Cowell, president of The Education Policy and Leadership Center, Dolores McCracken, treasurer at the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives. and Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, who sponsored legislation enacted last year that tightens exceptions permitted under Act 1 for raising property taxes. 

State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, unveiled legislation this week that targets $30 million in grants for proven academic programs to 18 troubled school districts, including Harrisburg City, Steelton-Highspire, York City, Lancaster, Lebanon, Reading, Chester-Upland and Allentown City.   He would fund the grants with revenue from a still-unpassed severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling or savings from the Department of Corrections. 

That's not much consolation to the Chester Upland School District which is bankrupt.  A federal court judge last month ordered the state Deptartment of Education to advance $3.2 million to the district to stay afloat.  Teachers had been working without pay.  The Corbett administration, citing financial mismanagement, does not want to continue to send money to Chester Upland.  "We can't continue to allow school districts to spend money they don't have, with the expectation that when they get through with that money, the state will send them more," Gov. Corbett said last month.  "There are other schools that are just behind Chester Upland in their economic problems. What is the incentive for them to do it right if you keep rewarding Chester Upland?"

Those comments drew reaction from Chester Upland acting deputy superintendent Thomas Persing who told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "The governor has been ill-informed or misinformed about the true situation in Chester Upland. The board inherited a problem over which they had little or no control and have been made a scapegoat in this matter."

A federal court hearing on the case is set for February 23. Lamakers from the area, including state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, asked Corbett to declare the district "financially distressed" which would trigger a state takeover and the appointment of a new board to replace the elected one.  Corbett says he's considering it.  

Last week, the board at the West Shore School District approved a preliminary 2012-13 budget that drastically cuts academic programs.  It would jettison Latin, middle school languages, instructional coaches, one-half of the district's librarians, and modify the gifted program.  That's on top of the previous year's gutting of family and consumer science, elimination of environmental education, and furloughing literacy and technology coaches.  The public balked at merging sports and other extra-curricular activities between Red Land and Cedar Cliff high schools, so the board scrapped that proposal.    The board retained the possibility of getting an exception from the state Department of Education to go beyond the tax-increase index of 1.7% which would raise additional revenue and potentially alleviate some of the cuts.

Cumberland Valley School District, one of the state's wealthier and higher achieving districts (and the one in which my children are enrolled) also is saddled with rising pension obligations.  The district laid out its various budget scenarios over the weekend to a packed house of parents and teachers.  The sobering bottom line:  Revenue projections are flat and even if the district takes the maximum permissible tax increase of 1.7 percent, it will not generate enough revenue to avoid painful cuts in programs.

Neither West Shore nor CV is anywhere near the devastating fiscal situation affecting Philadelphia and Chester Upland school districts.  Last year, Gov. Corbett and the legislature cut $930 million from basic education and many fear that the governor will put public schools back on the chopping block in next week's budget address.  A survey conducted by the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign and released in September 2011 found that students this academic year were "likely to find fewer teachers and school staff, larger class sizes, reduced course offerings, outdated textbooks, reduced opportunities for extra help and cuts to and fees charged for extracurricular activities."

At the same time, many new school directors, emboldened by the rise of the Tea Party, ran on pledges to hold the line on taxes.  That dynamic means conflict over priorities and some tough decision-making at school boards across Pennsylvania.  We want to hear your thoughts on the school-funding crisis.  Please call live tonight at 8 p.m. 1-800-729-7532, email us at, or post a comment here or to witf's Facebook page..  

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