Frustrated with the Panther Valley School Board being a lightning rod for a fiscal storm created by the state, longtime school director David Hiles is stepping down.
The decision to resign from his seat Hiles was first elected in 1983 and last elected in 2009 came after a friend and customer of his oil business stopped by last week to say he would no longer be buying oil because his wife was losing her job in the school district.
Hiles, 60, of Summit Hill, said his children will be taking over the family business, begun in 1983.
"Do I want to punish them by being on the school board and having customers leave because of what's happening with the school district?" he said. "I also have a responsibility to the eight people who work for me. I don't want this affecting their jobs. It just pushed me over the edge. I just can't do this anymore. If it was just me, I can fight the fight. I've taken hits from people who didn't like (school board decisions). But what's happening now is beyond any school director's control."
The recent backlash came after the school board last Thursday voted 6-1, with Hiles absent (a choir member, he was at church for Holy Thursday), and Irene Genther opposing, to cut six educational positions.
The decision drew so many teachers and parents to the board's public meetings in February and March that the crowd overflowed the room. The board listened to pleas to drop the plan, but ultimately went ahead with the cuts in light of a $1.8 million budget gap.
The district has for years been siphoning its fund balance to make ends meet without increasing the property tax. But that balance is dwindling.
School costs are going up; Panther Valley will pay $400,000 more this year toward teachers' pensions, for example.
Meanwhile, the amount of state funding is dropping, Hiles said.
"People have to realize they shouldn't be blaming their local school directors. They don't get paid, they spend their time away from their families, doing work for the school district. They are not there to hurt anyone. They are there to make their school district as good as it can be," he said.
"It's human nature for people to want to blame somebody when something bad happens to them. But they are not putting the blame where blame belongs," Hiles said. "Your local school directors are not responsible for the funding situation that's going on in the school districts. They're doing the best they can."
The blame, he said, "lies directly in Harrisburg. there's no doubt in my mind."
Most people don't see the changes over the decades that school directors have, he said.
"We went from the state funding school districts at the 50 percent level, to I believe we're under 30 percent now. There have just been gradual cutbacks," he said.
Referring to the $400,000 hike in teachers' pension costs this year, Hiles said it's hard to ask taxpayers who may have lost their own pensions to pay a tax increase to help fund teachers' pensions.
The district anticipates a similar increase in each of at least the next couple of years.
"That's a two-and-a-half mill tax increase in the Panther Valley," he said. That's on top of rising fuel and other costs.
"Our school district's going to be broke. We're going to be flat busted," Hiles said. "And it all stems from Harrisburg. It's all rules that they made."
He went on to describe cyber schools and charter schools, allowed by the state, as "like black holes, sucking cash out of public school systems."
School districts must give the cyber/charter schools the amount they would spend on each student. For example, Hiles said, Panther Valley spends about $8,000 per student. That includes transportation, lunches, and other services.
If that student elects to use a cyber/charter school, Panther Valley must hand over that $8,000, even though the cyber/charter school does not transport or feed the student.
"The school districts can't continue to bleed this kind of money without having repercussions, such as cuts in staff. Because, let's face it, that's where the money is going," he said.
"It's very frustrating for a school director to try to keep things going, and be dealing with these body blows from the state every time you turn around."
Hiles also vented his frustration at the people who attend school board only for single issues. Because they do not attend regularly, they don't know that school directors may have been working for months on that issue before placing it on the agenda.
He cautioned that there will be more cuts coming.
"Unless something happens, like Harrisburg saying there's more money coming," he said.
As Hiles prepared to leave his office to tender his resignation to Superintendent Rosemary Porembo, he said he'd love to see former House Speaker Keith McCall take his seat on the board.
"He was there when all these decisions were made the defunding of the schools, the defunding of the teachers' pension plan, the creation of the cyber and charter schools," Hiles said.
"Since he was there, I think now that he's retired, he could step up and be a true public servant, and sit on the local school board for no pay, like I've done for 20-some years, and enlighten the school board on how to handle this, what's come out of Harrisburg."
McCall, a Democrat who hails from Summit Hill, retired in November 2010 after serving in the state House of Representatives for 28 years. Efforts to reach him on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Schools Superintendent Rosemary Porembo reacted to Hiles' announcement.
"I was shocked when Dave came to my office today to inform me that he would be handing in his resignation," Porembo said.
"When Dave resigns his office as board director, he takes with him over 20 years of experience. He is very instrumental in understanding the complex issues of developing a budget, making policy, hiring and informing the public. He genuinely cares about the school community from student to taxpayer.
"Unfortunately, as the country and state are currently trying to re-define what a public education is, it becomes more difficult for all school board members to accept the changes as they do not have the ability to fund the school district," she continued.
"I will miss Dave, as I must always thank him for believing in me and the leadership skills he saw in me before I ever knew they were present."