Area school chiefs talk funding

January 24, 2017
Gideon Bradshaw/Observer-Reporter Intermediate Unit I Executive Director Charles Mahoney, foreground, and area school officials discuss financial challenges districts face during a meeting Tuesday at the IU1 headquarters.

Central Greene School Board member Beth Hellems told other area school officials Tuesday recent closures of coal mines complicate the district’s already tough financial position.

“It’s a very tough call. We’re in an economically depressed area, and we’re seeing all of our programs and staff be eliminated because we just don’t have the money,” she said Tuesday.

Hellems, of Waynesburg, was one of about a dozen school officials – mostly superintendents – and advocates who met at the headquarters of Intermediate Unit 1 in California to discuss ongoing financial challenges faced by districts and their implications for students.

With Pennsylvania ranking 46th in the percentage of funding the average school district receives from the state, educators have long argued the amount of new revenue flowing to districts from state sources isn’t adequate to cover rising costs, many of which are outside local officials’ control.

Administrators from Greene, Washington and Fayette counties, the area the intermediate unit serves, highlighted program and staffing cuts they said will come without a boost in funding from the state.

Washington Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo said 70 percent of her district is economically disadvantaged.

“Those students require a lot of attention above and beyond academic in order to support them and have them succeed and be prepared to move on to the next grade level and to postsecondary,” she said.

The open-ended discussion lasted less than an hour. Central Greene Superintendent Brian Uplinger said a particular strain on his district’s finances is the $3.4 million Alpha Natural Resources owes the district in real estate taxes for 2015-16. The company filed for bankruptcy and closed Emerald Mine in 2015. It paid its taxes for 2016-17.

“We’ve looked at attrition, primarily,” Uplinger said. The district eliminated eight positions in 2015-16 by not replacing employees who retired and then two more this year. “We haven’t had to furlough, which is good, but there are some program cuts that occurred” those years.

Thomas Zelesnik – a “circuit rider” whose job includes meeting with school officials about funding through a program run by various education advocacy groups – said the average Pennsylvania district receives 37 percent of its funding from the state. The nationwide average is 47 percent.

The GOP-controlled state legislature has opposed increases in state sales and income taxes proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, the last two years to help pay for budgets that would have increased money for education beyond those ultimately passed by the Legislature. Wolf said he doesn’t plan to seek increases in those taxes in his budget proposal for next year.

Zelesnik also said the major cost drivers for districts – contributions for employee pension contributions, payments to charter schools, special education and employee health insurance – are outside districts’ control.

“Those factors almost put us behind the eight ball before any dollars are allocated to our state,” Zelesnik said.

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