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School crisis

Published April 26. 2010 05:00PM

Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "emergency" message at a U.S. Senate hearing on the looming budget crisis for school districts was ominous.

"Every day brings media reports of layoffs, program cuts, class time reductions and class size increases," Duncan told the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Education Department budget.

Some forecasters are anticipating tens of thousands of teacher layoffs by the fall of this year. Already, New York schools are looking to cut 15,000 jobs, Illinois 17,000 and California 22,000. Across the nation, some predict that between 100,000 and 300,000 teaching positions could be lost if something isn't done.

"Literally tens of millions of students will experience these budget cuts in one way or another," Duncan warned in urging the subcommittee to consider another round of emergency funding for schools. "If we do not help avert this state and local budget crisis, we could impede reform and fail another generation of children."

The escalating teacher-pupil classroom ratio is always a concern to school districts. Classrooms with 25 students could easily balloon to 40 with the teacher layoffs, so the impossible task facing districts is how to juggle staff to somehow be able to educate more students with fewer instructors.

Michael J. Petrilli, Vice President for National Programs & Policy at the Thomas Fordham institute, a nonprofit education policy organization, warns that school districts must "go on a diet" and adapt to a whole new way of life. The money is gone, he says, and it's not coming back soon.

For some districts, this may mean not only staff cutbacks, but the elimination of programs such as summer school and extra-curricular sports.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania's problems are compounded by a looming pension crisis of such magnitude that Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, calls it "a pension tsunami and a retirement disaster."

Pennsylvania's 501 school districts and the state are paying $616 million into the retirement fund this year. Starting in the 2012-13 school year, the districts and the state will have to pay an additional $2.5 billion annually into the fund, according to the Association of School Business Officials.

While states like Ohio, New York, California, Florida and Texas funded their pensions at anywhere from 86 to 100 percent of the recommended levels over the past five years, our state set aside only 52 percent of the recommended contributions. Gov. Ed Rendell rearranged the financial structure of the pensions to delay the problem for a decade.

But Himes says it's useless to point fingers and assess blame.

"No single factor created our dilemma and no single remedy is going to get us out of our financial predicament," he says. "Everyone - schools, state government and employees - will all have to bear the burden of reshaping our public school retirement system and how it is funded."

Local taxpayers will likely end up in the headwind of this financial firestorm. That's why knowing where candidates stand on dealing with the funding crisis is so critical in this year's elections. Hopefully, voters will see through the campaign rhetoric to elect people who trulycare about residents being able to afford to remain in their homes, as well as preserving a middle class lifestyle, a hope which continues to shrink as government grows larger.

By Jim Zbick

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