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Bleak picture for schools

Published June 07. 2014 09:00AM

HARRISBURG (AP) - Rising costs and shrinking state and federal aid at Pennsylvania's public schools are exacerbating a pattern of property-tax increases, school program cutbacks and employee layoffs, two statewide groups representing school managers said Thursday.

The report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials sums up responses from 279 of the state's 500 school districts, ranging in size from Philadelphia to some of the smallest districts. The groups have compiled the reports annually since the 2010-11 school year.

The report said more than three-fourths of the responding districts plan to increase local property taxes next year.

"Increased property taxes are an annual fact of life in the great majority of school districts statewide - irrespective of poverty level, region or size," the report said.

The local share of total school funding has increased from 37 percent in 2010-11 to 45 percent in 2013-14, according to the report.

More than half of the responding districts said they plan to reduce or eliminate at least 370 academic programs next year, even if lawmakers approve additional state education funding proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett, according to the report.

The programs most frequently affected by the cuts are field trips, summer enrichment programs, foreign languages, performing arts and physical education, it said.

Eighty-seven percent of the school districts reported staff reductions over the past four years, most commonly by not filling vacant positions. But 59 percent said they had furloughed employees, including 42 percent that said they had furloughed teachers.

Other cost-saving steps reported by majorities of the responding districts include increasing class sizes and reducing the number of buses and bus routes.

The report was issued while many school districts are scrambling to put together their annual budgets and while state legislators are grappling with a massive shortfall in tax collections that is threatening the prospect of any increase in state aid next year. Both groups face a June 30 deadline.

School districts "won't know how much money they'll have until the state budget is enacted," said Jim Buckheit, the executive director of the school administrators' group.

The report cites a laundry list of spiraling mandatory expenses that include contributions to school employee pensions, health care costs and special education.

The pension is of particular concern to local school districts.

Some Panther Valley board members said last month that the school district could be broke in two years unless state legislators increase funding to local districts.

Business Manager Ken Marx said in the future, cost-cutting measures could include gutting programs, cutting back on sports program funding and increasing class sizes.

"Everybody's in the same situation," Board member Anthony DeMarco said. "In 2-4 years, many school districts will go belly-up if (the state) doesn't fix the pension crisis."

Tamaqua shares that concern. In an April 8 article in the Times News, Tamaqua School Board President Larry Wittig said, "The pension costs are increasing to the point where it's just not sustainable.

"There's not enough money in Pennsylvania to fund the systems," he added. "By 2018, there will be 500 bankrupt districts in the state."

Next year alone, more than three-fourths of the reporting districts said they expect their pension costs alone will increase by at least 25 percent.

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