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Area school officials forewarn of ‘funding cliff’ arriving soon

Public school superintendents warned Thursday during a conference in Williamsport that a “flat funding” model of state aid to districts won’t meet educational needs and will likely result in tax increases and fewer services now and in the future.

Superintendents spoke at the PA Schools Work Campaign Regional press conference at the district service center.

“We’re here to voice the urgency for an increased provision of state aid to avoid what could very well become a ‘funding cliff’ in the future with an ever-widening gap between the local and state share of public school district funding,” said Dr. Timothy Bowers, superintendent of Williamsport Area School District.

The district this week proposed a .53 mill tax hike, which might be lower by the June school board meeting but is projected to be an increase.

“Federal government relief will help school districts to weather this fiscal storm, but it is a one-time injection of funds to deliver immediate relief to cover specific COVID-related costs and get schools and students through this pandemic,” Bowers said.

Dr. Mark D. DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators urged the state legislature to add more aid to cover the increased mandated costs borne on districts.

State GOP Senate majority leadership recently wrote to superintendents urging them to use one-time federal relief dollars for non-recurring, one-time costs related to the pandemic and not for ongoing costs.

Cyber charter tuition expenses are increasing by nearly $500,000, or 21

percent in Williamsport.

Additionally, other expenses, such as salary increases of 1.6 percent per year, rising pension obligations and inflation are factors in increased costs.

“If state revenue continues to remain level, the discrepancy between the local and state share of funding also will continue to grow,” Bowers said.

Districts increasingly are requiring more support services such as counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists.

In Montgomery Area School District, a growing mental health crisis was exasperated by the pandemic.

“Our mental health costs are expected to double in the next year,” said Daphne Bowers, superintendent. “Our district is able to raise taxes by $128,733 to the index and that leaves us $625,823 in a deficit. With level funding it will not be long until school districts across the state are bankrupt,” she said.

Moreover, ongoing expenses in technology and special education, which are met with flat funding, will continue to weaken our schools, said Dr. Eric Briggs, Canton Area School District superintendent.

East Lycoming School District Superintendent Mike Pawlik said districts are not where they are because of COVID alone, but from years of inadequate state and federal funding and failed promises.

What was promised as 40 percent funding level is now under 15 percent and in terms of special education aid, he said as an example.

“I’m not against parent choice,” Pawlik said of cyber schools, which needn’t be feared by districts which offer quality education from K-12, he added.

But dealing with the mandates and district expenses has resulted in superintendents taking on a role of business executives.

“We should be called chief executive officers CEOs, who are in charge of a $30 million budget, with 400 employees and negotiating with three unions,” Pawlik said.

The district also is facing a tax hike in its June budget.

Education is a great leveler in society, and the state does a “disservice” when it does not provide the level of funding needed, Pawlik said.

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