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Budgets cut to the bone

  • Graphic by David W. Rowe
    Graphic by David W. Rowe
Published March 19. 2011 09:00AM

Local school officials are scrambling to figure out how they would make ends meet if Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed $23.7 billion state budget, which would drastically cut education funding, is adopted as-is on July 1.

The proposed budget includes cuts ranging from 7-10 percent - totaling about $550 million - in state basic education subsidies for K-12 public schools. Further, the proposal aims to drop the $260 million in block grants given this year to school districts for pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten and reducing kindergarten through third grade class. School districts would lose their reimbursement for charter school costs, and the proposal would also slash higher education funding by more than half.

Along with Corbett's proposed $5.2 billion basic education funding, which sets the state's contribution back to 2008-09 levels, he wants to implement a voucher program that would funnel millions of tax dollars to families to send their children to private schools. Corbett also suggest educators accept a one-year pay freeze.

The end of federal stimulus money that helped fuel education spending increases under former Gov. Ed Rendell has contributed to the proposed cuts.

The Panther Valley School District, 67 percent of whose students come from low-income families, stands to see its government funding drop by $1.3 million next year, said Business Manager Kenneth Marx. "State money accounts for 40 percent of all revenues, (and it would drop) down to 30 percent next year."

Under Act 1 legislation, the district cannot increase the property tax by more than two mills, although there are exemptions that allow a further increase. Each mill generates $150,000.

Marx said that Panther Valley's preliminary budget anticipated a deficit for 2011-2012 of almost $750,000, "which seems close."

"The district is looking to absorb some of the cost by utilizing its fund balance, but cannot continue to do so into future years," Marx said.

He expects to discuss the impact of the cuts in greater detail on March 24 when the board meets to work on the district's budget.

Superintendent Rose Mary Porembo at a public school board meeting on March 10 told the board that "to people in education, (Corbett's proposal) was a eulogy, a death sentence. Everybody looks to it right now in panic. But I would say to you that we did expect to see cuts."

Funding has been eliminated for dual enrollment, accountability block grants, education assistance tutoring, reimbursement for charter schools, school improvement grants, Science: It's Elementary, Intermediate Units, job training programs, high school reform, and recording for the blind and dyslexic.

"We face change, there's no doubt about it," Porembo said. She compared the looming change to loss, and grieving. She cited the five stage of grief - denial, anger, depression, and finally, acceptance. "I'm asking you to go right to acceptance," she told the school board. "I know we will work together as a team, and we will resolve the issues."

Porembo has the approach planned out.

"First, we need to define the basic needs and priorities to educate children in the Panther Valley area so they have the opportunity to compete in any post-secondary arena - college, trade or technical school, the military, or the workforce," she said.

"Next, we have to look for new revenue, new savings ... over the next few months, it's going to be challenging. When you look at the figures, we have a lot of decisions to make," she said."Together, we will make sound, responsible decisions, keeping in mind that our first responsibility is the students."

The Tamaqua Area School District is looking at a 1.3 mill ($214,500) drop in revenue, said Business Manager Connie Ligenza. Each mill generates $265,000.

"Our basic education funding is lower by $633,556. (Our) block grant (went) to $0 from $348,000. (Our) cyber charter subsidy (went) to $0 from $152,000. These are the major reductions, in addition to others," Ligenza said.

Tamaqua operates on a 27-mill budget, and state revenue sources are approximately 10.7 mill of 24.7 mill in total revenue.

"The Tamaqua Area School District is looking at all areas of expenses as well as revenue sources to address this budget crisis," Ligenza said.

In his first budget speech on March 8, Corbett also suggested a pay freeze for educators.

"Our calculations show that if public school employees across the state agreed to a one-year freeze on pay increases we could save school districts $400 million," he said. "That's $400 million in arts and music programs saved. That's $400 million in programs spared from cuts. That's $400 million toward making next year's budget less about cutting back and more about moving forward, at little pain to those sharing the sacrifice."

Corbett's proposal to cut funding drew fire from the state teacher's union.

"The combined loss of federal funds and state subsidy reductions proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett will harm the quality of education across the state," said Pennsylvania State Education Association president Jim Testerman.

"Our primary concern in this difficult economic time is the impact of policy changes on the children attending public schools. Cutting programs that work for students, raising class sizes, furloughing teachers and creating uncertainty for parents over who will be teaching their children should cause concern for all Pennsylvanians," Testerman said in a news release. "We understand these are difficult economic times for the Commonwealth, but the consequence of the governor's budget proposal is a billion dollars less going into Pennsylvania's classrooms. No matter how you look at it, the reality is direct services to students will suffer."

While K-12 public school leaders tackle the challenge of doing more with a lot less, local Head Start, largely federally funded, does not anticipate any cuts. The Carbon County program serves 175 Head Start children and 17 Pre-K Counts children.

But, Testerman agrees the pay freeze might help.

"As part of his budget proposal, the governor requested that education employees accept a one-year pay freeze. The governor stated that this decision is 'determined at a local level and arrived at by contract and collective bargaining.' As president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, I concur," Testerman said in a March 16 press release."I encourage PSEA members to seriously consider this request. Today, I sent a letter to the presidents of all PSEA locals. I encouraged them to enter into discussions with their school boards about a pay freeze or other cost-saving measures to maintain class sizes and academic programs. In some communities our members have recently agreed to economic concessions to maintain class sizes and academic programs. Their contribution must also be recognized," he said. "Such cooperation can help to preserve the academic gains made in Pennsylvania's public schools over the last decade."

As part of his education package, Corbett has reduced, but not eliminated, funding for Pre-K Counts.

"At this point, the governor's budget has flat-funded both Pre-K Counts and the Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program," said Beth Jaharias Zinkand, Senior Director, Child and Family Development Administration. "Therefore, as is stands now, our Carbon County program would not be affected."

But, she noted, "anything could happen" between now and July 1. "Last year both programs were flat-funded; however, in the final analysis, Pre-K Counts was ultimately cut by 2 percent. Nevertheless, we were able to continue to serve the 17 Pre-K Counts children without interruption.

"Regional Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded programs, and we have not heard the status of that funding. So, until we hear the magnitude of possible funding cuts, we do not know how (or if) those programs will be affected," she said.

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