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Distressing: School-funding case set for 2020

Published January 04. 2019 12:24PM

The judicial wheels creak along so slowly. To school districts which are distressed and need urgent state aid, two years seem like an eternity.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court said it would hear the case of six school districts that brought suit against the way the state hands out subsidies, but not until 2020. Panther Valley and Shenandoah Valley are the among the six. The others are Wilkes-Barre Area, William Penn in Delaware County, Greater Johnstown and Harrisburg Area.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled earlier that it is reviving a lawsuit that challenges how the state hands out public money, saying that it is coming up short when it involves distressed districts such as these six.

Depending on how the courts rule, this decision can have significant impact on the future of these districts, especially their students. There is fear that in some worst-case scenarios, they could be taken over by the state for oversight.

The state’s highest court decided by a 5-2 vote to reverse a decision by Commonwealth Court in 2015, which formerly rejected the case on the grounds that the lawsuit more properly belonged in the political rather than the judicial arena.

Now that a date has been set for the court to take up the matter, Panther Valley Superintendent Dennis Kergick said that he is encouraged that the high court has acknowledged inconsistencies in the way school funding is being handled.

The General Assembly passed and Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in 2016 hoping that this would be a major step forward in eliminating the funding gap between well-heeled and impoverished districts, but it didn’t. Fixed costs, such as pensions, benefits and unfunded mandates continue to confound administrators and boards of education in these districts as each year’s budgetary process generally winds up with considerable belt-tightening and costing taxpayers more in the form of increased real estate taxes to keep the schools afloat.

Panther Valley serves about 1,800 students from the boroughs of Coaldale, Lansford, Nesquehoning and Summit Hill. In the four years since the petition was filed on behalf of the six districts, they have found their unreimbursed pension expenses, over which they have no control, rise by nearly $868 million. During that time, however, the state has increased funding by a total of $712 from three different program, leaving the districts more than $155 million further in the hole.

Does this mean that Panther Valley and Shenandoah Valley students are getting an inferior education? Absolutely. For example, in the court filing, Panther Valley Superintendent Kergick said the district has been unable to restore reductions made eight years ago when it made significant staff cuts.

There are no librarians in the district, nor has it been able to adequately staff the administration. The intermediate school has one reading specialist for 450 students, the court filing said.

At Shenandoah Valley, which serves about 980 students, Superintendent Brian Waite said the district has already eliminated all of the fat from its budget and for years has “been cutting through bone.”

He said the district still cannot afford to provide transportation to and from school for all students. As a result of this, he said students — some as young as 4 years old — must either walk, sometimes on roads without sidewalks, or find another way to get to school.

Teaching, library and staff positions furloughed in 2012-13 have not been reinstated, Waite added. Since then, a science teacher position has been eliminated, meaning that seventh- and eighth-graders cannot take science, he said.

Because of insufficient funding, these districts are unable to provide students with the basic elements of an adequate education, such as appropriate class sizes, sufficient experienced and effective teachers, up-to-date books and technology, adequate course offerings, sufficient administrative staff, academic tutoring, counseling, adequate health services and suitable facilities necessary to prepare students to meet state proficiency standards and their future challenges in an increasingly technological society.

Think about that, and remember that this is 21st century America.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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