Superintendents expect ‘tough’ budget season

The governor’s proposed education budget will help only minimally as the costs of public education continue to sky rocket, according to local school superintendents.

Gov. Tom Corbett announced Tuesday that he is putting an additional $90 million into the basic subsidy, an increase of 1.7 percent, for the 2013-14 year.

In basic education, local districts saw a total boost of about $987,000, according to the state Department of Education’s website.

“I think it was very fair. I think he addressed a lot of our needs,” said Dr. Mark Stamm, South Williamsport Area School District superintendent.

But other superintendents said they were once again disappointed in the proposal.

“Since we have been flat-funded in our basic subsidy for the past several years and have received decreases or have been underfunded in other areas such as Title I, Accountability Block Grant, special education, technology, safe schools, and other grant opportunities, it doesn’t take a financial wizard to realize the gross inadequacy of this infusion of money,” said Dr. Kathleen Kelley, Williamsport Area School District superintendent.

Not sold on 4-year grant

One aspect of Corbett’s proposal that district heads agreed they would be watching is what the state does with its wine and spirit stores. Corbett called for the privatization of those establishments, which he said would generate about $1 billion for education.

Dr. Timothy Bowers, Montoursville Area School District superintendent, said although he likes “funding in any shape or form,” he would remain “cautious.”

That is because Corbett’s investment would be over four years, which doesn’t allow the districts to create any programs or tools that are sustainable after the funding ends.

“What happens when the money stops?” Grantier asked of the proposal.

“It’s soft money,” said Jersey Shore Area School District Superintendent Richard Emery. “It disappears. If you put in programming, you have to fund it locally or cut the program.”

Brandt mirrored those comments, saying if it’s not sustainable, it won’t help.

“We implement these programs and then we have to take them away because we don’t have the tax dollars to support them,” she said.

Kelley said districts have seen that type of funding before.

“The Passport Learning Block Grant is another attempt to convince the public that an appreciable amount of money will be put into education. This money would be no different than stimulus money … that has been given to districts in the past to start new programs. It is ‘soft’ money that goes away after a short period of time,” she said.

Grantier called the four-year funding a “contradiction” to Corbett’s reaction to the accountability block grant. Michael Pawlik, East Lycoming School District superintendent, agreed, saying that he couldn’t believe Corbett would propose such a plan when he “chastised” districts for their use of the accountability block grant.

Corbett said districts shouldn’t have used the grant to fund long-term costs. The Passport Learning Block Grant would fund security programs, an academic initiative, individualized learning program and STEM – science, technology, engineering and math courses.

“He is now proposing what he has been chastising districts in the past (about),” Pawlik said.

Obstacles to hurdle

Superintendents said they face the same obstacles as last year when balancing their budget – rising costs of health care, retirement and cyber charter schools.

“I can’t understand why the cyber school issue can’t be solved,” Grantier said.

Cyber schools “choke money” away from public schools, especially when they’re doing a “poor job at best,” he said. After the state recalculated scores on the state System of School Assessment, there were none that made adequate yearly progress, he added.

Grantier believes in school choice but with those results, he said, putting money into them is “ludicrous.”

The pension reform proposed by the governor would see local districts receiving about $1.1 million -according to PDE’s website – in net pension savings. But superintendents still are wary.

Brandt wasn’t sure Corbett had a “firm handle” on how to solve the pension problems districts are facing.

Montgomery Area School District Superintendent Daphne Ross added that although it will help, the district is preparing for an increase.

“Limiting the amount that employers will pay to PSERS from 4.5 to 2.25 will help with this year’s budget, but we must prepare for it to increase incrementally over the next few years.,” she said.

Cuts to be made

As districts continue to prepare budgets for the next school year, everything will be examined.

“Every time we go through a budget process, everything is on the table,” Stamm said.

Ross said all districts have three options to balance budgets: reduce staff and programs, increase taxes, and consolidate or merge schools.

Emery added that he hopes to come up with an option that will affect students the least.

But with so many obstacles, Kelley said it’s difficult.

“We are expected to maintain quality academic, athletic, and visual (and) performing arts programs with decreasing revenue sources,” she said.

Grantier added that it will be tough but all districts are in the same boat.

“We’re going to look at every program. We’re going to look at every position. We’re going to look at every retirement. We’re going to do what every other school district in Lycoming County is going to do,” he said.