Perkiomen Valley schools have their own problems

Posted: May 27, 2014

Hundreds of students walking out of classes to protest teacher layoffs. Angry parents crowding school board meetings every two weeks, protesting proposed cuts in the classroom. Talk of a bus trip to Harrisburg to plead with lawmakers for a fair-funding formula.

This isn't Philadelphia, where the school budget crisis has generated national headlines.

In the Perkiomen Valley School District, in an affluent nook of central Montgomery County, education cuts are nothing like those associated with a $200 million gap, or the loss of school nurses and libraries that has rocked its big-city neighbor.

But five years of penny-pinching and property-tax hikes have caused passion and anger to boil over in this leafy-green suburban area nonetheless.

To close a $2.85 million gap, the school board has signed off on a broad menu of cuts - eliminating three teachers and lunch aides, not filling vacant teacher and staff positions, axing mandatory drivers' education, halting the purchase of musical instruments, increasing class sizes, and eliminating a bus that transports students living in the district to Germantown Academy. But even with these cuts and a 2.5 percent tax increase - the state limit under Act 1 - the district says its budget still would have a shortfall of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The budget controversy erupted this month when about 500 students walked out of classes at Perkiomen Valley High School and rallied on the baseball field to protest teacher layoffs.

"While we knew that cuts had to be made, we didn't think that was the right path to go about it," said sophomore Addison Hunsicker, 15, one of the organizers of the May 9 protest.

But the frayed nerves in Perkiomen Valley are typical of what school administrators and their local communities are facing across Pennsylvania as a statewide crisis in education funding enters its fifth year. Budget-crunchers say they have made all the easy choices and all that's left are steep tax hikes or cuts to classroom learning.

"Schools are cut to the bone at this point," said Steve Robinson of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, noting that districts such as Allentown are also facing more layoffs. "There's not much else to cut without really digging into the academics of the schools, which is something they're trying to avoid at all costs."

Like other districts, Perkiomen Valley faces a steep increase in teacher retirement costs as well as higher expenses for health insurance, but it doesn't want to tap out all of its remaining rainy-day reserve fund.

On top of that, the roughly 5,900-student Montgomery County district, like its counterparts, is trying to finalize next year's budget when any decision from Harrisburg on education aid is weeks away and there is rising concern that legislators will have to plug a fresh $1 billion budget hole. And adding to Perkiomen's uncertainty is that district teachers have been working without a contract since last August.

Currently, Perkiomen Valley officials say that balancing next year's budget without cost-cutting moves would have required a large property-tax increase - they already received approval from the state Department of Education for up to 5.5 percent, which is probably more than local taxpayers would tolerate.

"Our community is a nonindustrial, nonbusiness community," Superintendent Clifford Rogers said. "Almost all of the local revenue we generate is coming from individual homeowners."

At the most recent board meeting, district officials floated a plan that would save the jobs of the three teachers, including two popular baseball coaches, but the final outcome is uncertain. The debate has roiled and energized parents - including more than 100 who recently joined a new Facebook group called Advocates for Perkiomen Valley Education.

"Clearly, this problem didn't happen overnight, and it's not going to be fixed overnight," said Caroline Brant, who organized the group. Brant, a mother of three from Collegeville, said she moved to the community because of the public schools, including gifted-track student programs that are now facing cuts.

Brant said that "everything needs to be addressed across the board," and that while she's willing to accept a tax hike, she also would like to see Perkiomen Valley teachers sign on to a pay freeze.

The teachers' union, which is considering a contract settlement from a state mediator that the board has already approved, has a different view of the crisis. William McGill, president of the Perkiomen Valley Education Association, argued that a tax hike of about 5.5 percent - roughly $180 to $200 for a typical district home - would be justified. He said teachers have already held the line on pay increases, including a one-year freeze in their last contract.

Like many of the newly engaged parents, Chrissie Collura of Skippack said she's particularly riled by the proposal to consolidate the high school's three academic tracks into two. She said parents increasingly agree that the current state allocation formula has shortchanged Perkiomen Valley.

Rogers, the district superintendent, said: "We've been working actively to try to remedy ... the percentage of state revenue that Perkiomen Valley receives." The board will vote on a final budget June 9.

Critics say that Pennsylvania currently lacks a funding formula and that yearly allocations - some based on outdated data from 2007 - have fallen increasingly out of whack since the 2008 fiscal crisis. A state legislative commission is just now beginning a study of the problem.

But the other major unresolved issue is rapidly rising pension costs, which business manager Jim Weaver called "the elephant in the room." He said the district does have roughly $1 million set aside to deal with its rising retirement tab, but officials are reluctant to tap that until Harrisburg can agree on a permanent solution. Negotiations in the state capitol on resolving the massive statewide pension crisis remain stalled.

But parents say they're frustrated - and befuddled as to when the squeeze will ever end. Brant said she wants to know "how was money mismanaged to the point where we ran out."

"I feel there is a disconnect, and I can't figure it out."



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