Study: Class size up

As districts prepare to adopt a final budget for the 2013-14 school year in the coming weeks, a study released from Harrisburg Wednesday looked at what districts are doing in order to find the funds to keep operations going.

The study, conducted by the state Association of School Administrators and state Association of School Business Officials, received data from 187 of the 500 state school districts for its results.

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the administrators association, explained that a reduction in funding from local, state and federal levels, along with increases in state pension and health care costs have forced school districts across the state to reduce programs and staff.

“It’s important to note that these are cumulative cuts,” Buckheit said Wednesday on expected cuts reported by districts.

In the study, 75 percent of districts reported that they would make cuts to instructional programming in the coming school year.

“That’s higher than its been in any of the last two school years,” Buckheit said on the figure.

Also higher than the past few school years is the amount of school districts increasing class sizes, 70 percent; reducing elective courses, 44 percent; and decreasing tutoring, 35 percent.

When asked, Buckheit added that cuts have evolved from “nice to have” programs, such as electives with low enrollments and business programs in 2011-12 to “deeper” cuts in 2012-13 by making kindergarten half-day instead of full-day and reducing foreign language, physical education and the arts. More cuts are expected for 2013-14, he said.

And by increasing class sizes, Buckheit said, students will lose out by not getting the one-on-one attention they may need if struggling.

Cutting field trips and athletics also is a measure being taken by districts throughout the state. And like some local districts, it was reported that 8 percent are planning to close a building. It is reported in the study that 7 percent closed buildings in the 2012-13 school year and 10 percent did so in 2011-12.

But programs aren’t the only things being cut, as the study reported that 64 percent of districts plan to not replace vacant positions and 20 percent will implement furloughs. Payroll expenses were decreased by $500 million in 2011-12.

But increases to health care and pension costs have taken away any savings districts saw by cutting staff.

“Steep increases in pension and health care costs negated some of those savings,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the business official association.

And when districts still are looking to find a few extra dollars, they’re using their fund balance at “unprecedented levels” to help offset expenditures. The study reports that 7 out of 10 districts responding to the survey said they would use fund balance in the coming budget.

Although using reserves isn’t uncommon, the study said doing so year after year can be “fiscally devastating.”

And although the financial situation is troubling, Jeff Ammerman, of the business officials association, reported that 34 percent of districts reported not having a millage increase to real-estate taxes.

To help with the financial problems districts are having across the state, the study is calling for mandate relief, including the “elimination of the pension double dip in the charter school funding formula.”