HARRISBURG — A growing number of Pennsylvania's school districts appear to be considering layoffs and eliminating programs such as summer school and full-day kindergarten and raising taxes by more than the rate of inflation to help address significant cutbacks in state aid that are nearly certain, according to a survey released today.
For example, 68 percent of the districts that responded are considering layoffs of instructional staff, compared with 11 percent that actually did so in this fiscal year, while 31 percent are considering eliminating full-day kindergarten, compared with practically none in this fiscal year.
A top state senator, Education Committee Chairman Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin, criticized the survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. In a statement, he said it was designed to advance the "education establishment's insatiable appetite for more money" after he and fellow Republican senators warned districts to be cautious about spending billions in federal stimulus dollars that are now disappearing.
The survey, conducted in April, came on the heels of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's plan to slash state aid to school districts by more than $1 billion, or more than 10 percent, with the state's poorest districts expected to be hit the hardest.
That plan is receiving strong criticism from many state lawmakers, who are exploring alternatives as they try to address an anticipated multibillion-dollar budget deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
With local tax collections and revenue stagnant, the potential for school cutbacks is unprecedented, said Jay Himes of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
"Up until now, districts have tried to avoid cutting direct instructional programs and things that affect the classroom, and clearly this survey indicates that the low-hanging fruit has been picked and there is nowhere to go now except cutting instructional programs," Himes said.
Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators said a cutback in state aid that forces such measures is "the wrong answer for Pennsylvania's children today and the wrong answer for Pennsylvania's future."
The measures so many schools are considering threaten gains in educational quality made across Pennsylvania in recent years, and threatens the quality of education for future students, the men said.
The survey garnered responses from 263 of 500 districts, or more than half the total. Some respondents did not answer every question, and Himes acknowledged that the results do not exactly predict what districts will end up doing, because a final state school aid figure won't be settled until a state budget passes the Legislature and is signed by Corbett.
School administrators are required to produce a proposed budget 30 days before the board holds a final vote, which is required no later than June 30.
Other results of the survey included: 86 percent of the respondents were considering increasing class size, compared with 17 percent that actually increased class sizes in the current fiscal year; 64 percent were considering eliminating or reducing tutoring, compared with 5 percent that did so in this fiscal year; and 51 percent were considering eliminating summer school, compared with 4 percent that did so in this fiscal year.
The question of potential tax increases is more complicated. A smaller percentage expected to increase taxes next year by rates at or below inflation, 46 percent compared with 54 percent that did so this year. Almost the same percentage did not expect to increase taxes next year. However, a higher percentage expected to raise taxes by more than the rate of inflation, 31 percent compared with 21 percent, according to the survey.
Piccola, a leading advocate in Pennsylvania of using taxpayer money to underwrite private school tuition, said taxpayers are providing more than $25 billion in federal, state and local tax dollars to Pennsylvania's public schools annually and are demanding accountability and shared sacrifice.
"Make no mistake, the recession has hit all sectors of Pennsylvania's economy and school districts are no different," Piccola said. "Doing more with less is what the taxpayers are demanding of all levels of government."