Survey: Pa. schools in dire financial straits

Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO).
Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO).
Posted: May 23, 2012

A survey of Pennsylvania school districts to be made public Tuesday shows many headed toward insolvency in the next few years, and to avoid it they are weighing cuts to music, art, physical education, and electives while increasing class size and raising taxes.

Two hundred and eighty-one of the state’s 500 districts — 56 percent — participated in the late April survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO). The names of the specific districts were not released, a condition of their participation.

More than half said they anticipated being in financial distress — not being able to meet their obligations — within three years, if local and state revenues don’t increase. Three percent — more than a half-dozen — said they were already broke.

A large part of the financial crisis stems from school employee pension payments, which are expected to triple — from $1.2 billion to almost $4 billion — over the next four years, said Jay Himes, PASBO’s executive director. At the same time, federal, state, and local revenues will be “flat, at best,” he said.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” said Jim Buckheit, the executive director of PASA. “We have not seen anything like it in generations.”

Districts, he said, “have already picked the low-hanging fruit; now, to balance their budgets, they are having to climb to the top of the tree or cut off a limb.”

Gov. Corbett said this month that many districts still have sizable savings and should use them, rather than cut programs. A state Education Department tally shows reserves statewide totaling about $3.3 billion.

But Himes said the figures are a year old, and more than half the total has been set aside to pay for specific anticipated expenses, such as debt financing and future pension fund increases. The April school district survey shows about three-quarters of responding districts using reserves for 2012-13, with many using more than they did last year, Himes said.

A school district survey last fall by PASBO and PASA showed that the 294 responding districts had cut 8,365 jobs; the April survey shows three-quarters of those who answered planning to eliminate more jobs next fall, through layoffs or not filling vacant positions.

Also, 58 percent of the responding districts are weighing cuts in art and music instruction, physical education classes, electives, and advanced placement offerings.

Several districts are considering eliminating kindergarten; others are considering cutting all art, music, and physical education, Himes said.

Locally, the Chester Upland School District, which almost went broke in January, is under pressure from state officials to cut transportation and sports and to close some schools. The district laid off 28 percent of its staff last fall and eliminated arts and music programs.

Delaware County’s Upper Darby School District is considering eliminating elementary school art and music classes, as well as physical education teachers and middle school language and technology classes.

Even prosperous districts are feeling the heat. Chester County’s affluent Tredyffrin/Easttown district is considering increasing class sizes even as it passed a preliminary final budget that increases taxes by 3.3 percent and uses $1.5 million in savings.

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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