Continued Cuts: Losing Confidence, Losing Learning

Great Learning

Continued Cuts: Losing Confidence, Losing Learning

In 2010-2011, when PASA and PASBO first started documenting how lost and stagnant revenues have forced school districts to cut learning opportunities for Pennsylvania’s school children, no one imagined that the cuts would continue six years later. No one imagined that in all this time state policy-makers would still have failed to take meaningful action to curb growing expenses or that the state share of school funding would still be declining. No one imagined that our school leaders would be losing confidence in state policy makers and students would still be losing learning opportunities.

Yet this is the story of this edition of the annual PASA-PASBO Report on School District Budgets. As in previous years, this report provides current budget data and program details from school districts across every corner of the Commonwealth. Our survey received its highest response rate yet, with 355 of 500 school districts participating, and includes representation from all 67 counties. Districts were asked to detail plans based on preliminary budgets for the fiscal year 2016-2017. New this year, we document how districts coped with the nine-month-long 2015-2016 budget impasse, as well as uncertainty around PlanCon reimbursements for school construction. Also for the first time, we are able to include longitudinal comparisons to past surveys. The results are not good.

Even as Pennsylvania’s leading economic indicators project “continued growth in the economy going forward,”1 our 2016 survey results show the worst outlook for public schools of any of our previous surveys. Districts project increases in mandated expenses for pensions (100 percent), health care (84 percent), special education (88 percent), and charter schools (77 percent), higher in every category than in previous reports. More districts are planning local tax hikes, borrowing funds, dipping into fund balances, and delaying payments to vendors. Most importantly, the number of districts projecting cuts to staff (46 percent), increases in class size (34 percent) and cuts to educational programs (50 percent) continue to rise.

Based on our survey, we estimate that in 2016-2017 the increased cost of mandated expenses will exceed $600 million, not including any cost of living salary adjustments. Thus, even under Governor Wolf’s proposal to add $250 million in basic and special education revenues to next year’s state budget, the vast majority of districts report they could not restore the cuts they have been forced to make since 2010. It’s basic math.

It’s also deeply personal. Woven throughout the data are stories of how superintendents and business officials from six individual school districts have coped with continued cuts. This is not a cherry-picked rehashing of only the most well-known school funding challenges and inequities in Philadelphia, Chester-Upland, and York City districts or even the newer crises growing in Erie City and Scranton. The featured school districts – Coudersport Area, Corry Area, Southeast Delco, Elizabeth Forward, Reading, and Hanover Area – are reflective of public education across the Commonwealth. Their experiences demonstrate the depth of the state’s structural school funding problems. Together with the survey data, their stories show that the time to restore confidence and restore learning opportunities is now.

Published: June 2016
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