woman at podium

Local school districts say staff, program cuts possible if state doesn’t come through with more funding

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 6, 2021) – Several Pittsburgh-area school district leaders and education advocates joined their colleagues across Pennsylvania on Thursday to urge the state to invest in and equitably fund public schools.

Officials called on Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass state budget proposals put forth by Gov. Tom Wolf over the past several months that include a $1.3 billion investment in public schools through tax increases and reforms to the commonwealth’s charter school funding laws, which they say are among the most inequitable in the nation.

“Vibrant public schools provide substantial benefits to individuals and to our communities,” Gennaro Piraino, superintendent of the Franklin Regional School District, said during a press conference at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville. “As students enter the community and workforce, it creates broad social and economic benefits. The consequences of failing to invest in public education make Pennsylvania less attractive to employers and ultimately negatively impact the lives of our citizens.”

Mr. Piraino, Caroline Johns, superintendent of the Northgate School District, and Mark Holtzman, superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District, all said their districts would be forced to make tough decisions if the state does not boost its investment in schools, such as cutting student programming and staff positions, and raising taxes.

They also said the impact of COVID-19 harmed the budgets of school districts, many of which were struggling financially before the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, while mandated costs related to charter schools, personal protective equipment and other items to ensure schools could open their doors safely increased dramatically, state education funding remained flat,” said Jamie Baxter, education policy director at Allies for Children. “Across Pennsylvania, school districts were forced to cover these mandated costs that spiked by a total of $665 million.”

While the superintendents said they were thankful for the federal aid that schools will receive to help deal with pandemic costs, they noted that those dollars are only temporary and the state must ensure education is well-funded into the future.

Ms. Johns said the Northgate School District plans to use the federal funding for summer school programming, mental health resources and tech needs — three areas that the district needed help to fund even before the pandemic. But she warned that the district will not be able to sustain those programs and resources when the federal funding runs out.

“However, of even greater concern,” she said, “is the suggestion that we may have flat funding from the state because of the federal funding. Those monies from the federal level are intended to provide additional supports needed to cope with the effects of the pandemic, not supplant normal spending.”

PA Schools Work, an organization that advocates for public schools, organized similar press conferences Thursday in other parts of the state to push for increased education funding, including Philadelphia, Lancaster and Lehigh Valley.

The governor’s plan includes placing all $6.2 billion of existing basic education funding plus an additional $200 million increase this year through the state’s fair funding formula — a formula that has only applied to new investments since it was created in 2016. The plan also includes a proposal to make the state’s special education funding formula apply to charter schools the same way it does to traditional public schools.

Charter school advocates and some Republican lawmakers have already expressed opposition to the charter school funding reform, which they say takes away money from some of the neediest students in Pennsylvania.

But at a separate event, acting state Education Secretary Noe Ortega endorsed Wolf administration proposals that he said would hold charter schools accountable to students and taxpayers.

“Students across the commonwealth deserve a quality education that prepares them for their future endeavors,” Mr. Ortega said. “To ensure the continued mission of high-quality learning in PA, we must hold our public schools accountable for their educational outcomes and subject to fair, predictable funding structures and standards.”

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