Dealing with shrinking budgets, while still providing a high level of education, has forced local school districts to look at their operations and create more efficient ways of educating the area's youth this past year.
Programs and services already have begun to change, and more could be on the way, said local superintendents.
"Budgets have forced a reduced staff (and) reduced programs, yet we need to educate to a higher level," said Daphne Ross, superintendent of Montgomery Area School District.
When Gov. Tom Corbett released the first look at the state budget in February, it showed an increase of $45 million to the basic subsidy for education, but schools felt a hit in the elimination of the accountability block grant, a loss of about $100 million statewide.
This, with the continued rise in health care and retirement costs facing school districts, has made it crucial for them to find ways of cutting costs in each year's budget.
"We have taken every opportunity to trim to the point that there is no fat left on the budget bone," said Dr. Portia Brandt, superintendent of Muncy School District.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: As 2012 comes to a close, Sun-Gazette reporters take a look back at the major news stories of the year. This series continues daily through Dec. 30. Then, on Dec. 31, watch for a special photo section, Yearbook 2012.)
As school districts began looking at cutting costs this past year, staff and programs were the two main items that did not survive intact.
"It boils down to, the pie is only so big. What we do here administratively is, we come up with options and look at the impact of each option," said Richard Emery, superintendent of Jersey Shore Area School District.
"It's always tough when you're dealing with less money. What you're doing is cuttings costs without cutting programs," said Dr. Mark Stamm, superintendent of South Williamsport Area School District.
Stamm said working in education isn't the "doomsday" scenario that most think of, but agreed that things are "tighter" than he would've liked.
Emery added that with 70 percent of the budget each year pertaining to salaries and benefits of district staff, it was the logical choice to begin looking to cut.
Districts had both voluntary and involuntary furloughs, and also staff cuts through attrition - positions vacated through retirements that were not filled.
Ross said that there is "no quick decision" when looking at cuts, but the district's administration must gather all information and present it to the school board.
Dr. Kathleen Kelley, Williamsport Area School District superintendent, agreed, saying that there are plenty of difficult decisions superintendents make each year, but they must do what's best for students.
"Anytime you sit in a superintendent's seat, you know at times you have to make decisions or recommendations that aren't popular (with the public) but it's not about popularity," Kelley said. "It's about what you can do for the students."
"You learn very quickly that each decision you make, that someone is not going to be happy," Emery added.
Michael Pawlik, East Lycoming School District superintendent, said it's important to remember with any decision, it must, "focus on students, no matter what resources you have."
When looking at its budget, Loyalsock Township School District had discussions about cutting eight full-time paraprofessionals to part-time in the summer. After the public spoke against the cut, the district did not go forward with it - although the district did say at the time that the decision was not made because of any public presentation.
Robert Grantier, Loyalsock Township superintendent, said he understands decisions affect people's lives and that's why he takes all information into consideration.
"Everyone needs to realize ... that when you make a decision and it's affecting a person's job, it's affecting someone's life and I take that very seriously," he said. "That aspect is very hard for me and, I think, for all educators."
Adapting to cuts
With the budget cuts, district heads were forced to find a way to provide the same education with less staffing, programs and other tools. As Ross put it: "Work harder with less."
Area superintendents said cuts made everyone do a little more in order to make up for fewer staff members.
"I think what we noticed the most is we used to have a staff of 105 members (and it's been decreased to) the upper 90s," Stamm said.
Ross explained that working in education no longer is strictly about what happens in between the walls of a school building, but about going out into the community and finding resources.
"I spend a lot of time talking with the community about what our needs are. (I'm) spending a lot of time looking for ways to pay for things without using taxpayers' dollars," she said.
Ross added that creating relationships with community organizations has helped offset cuts they've had to make.
Technology also has played a part.
When Montgomery high school students came to class this year, they weren't only given the traditional textbook and notebook but iPads, as well.
Ross said with fewer staff and students wanting a more individualized educational experience, technology has become an even bigger part of the district's curriculum.
"Children today are very, very different and their demands are different," she said.
Superintendents also mentioned that with cuts, districts still must produce high test scores.
Stamm spoke about how there is a level of uncertainty as PSSA standards continue to rise and the Keystone Exams are set to be introduced next year.
"I think there's a lot of unknowns," Stamm said.
Less real estate
Programs and services were not the only aspects that were altered, as a more visible change occurred in some districts.
Although some were not directly related to budget concerns, county school districts looked to downsize facilities this past year.
According to a Sun-Gazette report, Ross credited the ability to balance this year's budget to the fact that it closed the doors of Elimsport Elementary more than a year ago.
Ross said through her data collecting, it was "evident" that the district had no need for the building.
Williamsport's school board voted to close two buildings earlier this year. Round Hills and Sheridan elementary schools are set to close at the end of this school year.
Williamsport's decision was not in response to this year's budget but part of the district's grade reconfiguration, which consolidated its schools.
Muncy also decided to sell its administration building. Brandt said all decisions the district made were in order to "tighten" all aspects of operations.
Although Jersey Shore has yet to close any buildings, there have been several discussions on the topic. There was a vote to close two elementary schools in February, but it failed. However, discussion about closing a school recently was reopened.
Future of education
"I think in the next three to five years we won't see anything positive," Kelley said when asked what the future holds for education.
Kelley said she expects there to be less grant opportunities for school districts that are looking to help offset costs with less state funding. And by needing to make more cuts, she said arts will be "vulnerable" to elimination.
Ross agreed, saying that economically, "it's not going to get better anytime soon."
"I think we're going to see huge changes in education in the next 10 years. Funding is going to cause us to change," she said.
Ross also expects school days to shorten as more technology enters the school day. But whatever happens, Ross hopes teachers remain a fixture. She doesn't want primarily online classes overtaking the educational experience.
But Emery believes as more options, such as cyber and charter schools, become available, public education will receive more competition.
The future of local education all depends on the state, Grantier said.
"I know that at the state level, state legislators are going to have to make some very, very tough decisions. They're going to have to address the pension situation, address cyber schools - funding and accountability - and they're going to have to address health care," Grantier explained.
Although he said they do long-term planning, Pawlik said he's focused on making today successful as it's difficult to predict the future.
"At this point in time, it's really difficult to say (what is going to happen). We're really focusing on making every day successful," he said.
Stamm also said he's unsure what the future will hold, but said like this year, districts will need to adapt.
"This is the new reality. It's neither good nor bad; it's just how it is," Stamm said.
Brandt is optimistic that things will turn around, but doesn't expect it to happen fast. She doesn't believe anything positive will happen before the end of her contract in about three years.
"I think it's going to be steady and it's going to be right but it's going to be a slow and laborsome climb to that end of the tunnel," she said.
Montoursville Area School District could not be reached for comment for this report.