Over half of the schools in Pennsylvania which responded to a statewide survey of 500 districts expect their finances to worsen next year and three in four were expecting to reduce staff and tap into budget reserves.

The report, which shows the continued fiscal deterioration of school districts around the commonwealth, was the result of a survey taken by two advocacy groups the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. The groups blame cuts in state aid, rising costs and a lag in local tax collections.

Of the 281 districts which responded, just over half expected their financial conditions to worsen, which is up from the 40 percent polled about their budgets in the previous survey. Consequently, about half expected to increase taxes and reduce or eliminate field trips and extracurricular activities, including sports.

The anticipated cuts in instructional programs and personnel are numbers not seen since the Great Depression.

Because of the strain on school budgets, three in four districts expect to tap reserves and reduce staff while three in five expect to increase class size and reduce elective course offerings. There are other consequences. Half of those surveyed expect to increase taxes and reduce or eliminate field trips and extracurricular activities, including sports.

In light of the pessimistic figures from the survey released today in Harrisburg, leaders in school finance and school administration, many of whom are in the midst of finalizing new budgets for the upcoming school year, addressed the challenges their districts are facing.

Bracing for the funding crisis, local school groups have been active. Although the Jim Thorpe board announced it is holding the line on taxes, a Citizens advisory committee has been formed. The group will have an advisory role to the superintendent, and will discuss all aspects of the school community.

Tamaqua school board president Larry Wittig put all cards on the table for residents during a very intense and vocal public meeting last month when he announced that the district is on the edge of a financial cliff due to the commonwealth's unsustainable pension program. He predicted that unless the state addresses the issue, all school districts will face insolvency in the next few years.

In that somber address, Wittig said that for the first time in the 17 years that he's been involved with the district, the funding balance is being depleted.

"We don't have an answer past 2015," he warned.

Facing an $820,000 budget shortfall, the Tamaqua directors have sharpened their pencils in whittling at the new spending plan. As in many other districts, most non-fixed costs were kept in play, including a tax hike and cuts in personnel, curriculum, sports and even busing.

Sports and other popular extra curricular activities are also on the chopping block in many districts. In his solemn overview of the Tamaqua situation, Wittig said the district must continue to look at areas to cut because a budget deficit will increase with time.

Regarding Tamaqua's 20 varsity sports, Wittig said that "Pleasant Valley is twice our size and has half of that." He added that districts of Allentown, Reading, Harrisburg and others are in the same financial boat.

Unfortunately, many school financial boats are treading water these days.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com