T he York City School District is closer today than it's ever been to being taken over by state government.
That, if it happens, will be a very sad day.
And for two reasons: One, it would show how low the city school district has sunk in the grand scheme of things; and two, if there is any group of people less capable of turning around the finances of the York City School District it's got to be state government.
In fact, we might all be better off if the York City School District took over state government instead of the other way around. I doubt we'd notice much difference.
Because, as we know all too well, the Pennsylvania Legislature has proved itself to be one of the most corrupt political bodies in the country. At least no one has accused the city school board or administration of being corrupt. Not yet, anyway.
But if that's not bad enough, the state's financial status isn't much better than that of the York City School District.
Talk about people who live in glass houses casting the first stone -- that's the state taking anyone to task for not managing its money well.
But it doesn't see it that way. It apparently thinks it has all the answers.
So it was not much of a surprise last Friday, when it was reported in The York Dispatch that the state was gaining ground on legislation that would allow it to take over the York City School District and three other districts in the state because they are under financial distress.
The idea, I suppose, is that the state would appoint a person to oversee the school district's finances and help draft a financial plan the school system must enact and follow.
But there is a fly in the ointment. The state takeover has almost no chance -- roughly the same as a snowball surviving the month of July, I'd guess -- of being successful because lawmakers caved in to pressure by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (the teachers' union) and removed the option of forcing the teachers' union in a failing school district to accept a wage freeze or other contract conditions that would lower the budget.
Teachers said they'd fight that provision. So lawmakers tucked their tails between their legs and removed it.
Given that 70 percent to 75 percent of most school districts' budgets are consumed by teacher salaries and benefits, it's hard to imagine making any headway on a failed budget without the ability to adjust those line items first and foremost.
Because the truth is school board members could eliminate just about everything in the budget not having to do with salaries, benefits and capital expenses and still not have a financially stable school district.
So where do we go from here?
Well, there are several options, I guess, but none of them are good options.
The city school district has already cut a significant number of staff -- teachers, administrators and employees at every level -- in the last two years. And it still started the recent budget session with a $19 million deficit.
It's closed the doors on its two middle schools for the next school year, forcing those students to attend classes in the district's elementary schools.
It hasn't eliminated its sports program, but it almost did. All that's left is basketball, football and volleyball. The rest are gone, including the athletic director.
It's slashed its curriculum of just about all of its electives, leaving a bare-bones selection of core subjects.
It's cut all but two guidance counselors.
And it has watched as its student population has been reduced from more than 7,000 students a couple of years ago, to something like 5,000 students today -- nearly all defections to charter schools in the city, for which city taxpayers are still required to pay.
I don't claim to have the answer. But I do think there must be one out there somewhere.
I say that because there has to be some explanation as to why the York City School District needs an annual budget of $108 million -- just passed last week for 2012-13 -- to educate about 5,000 students, when the Central York School District intends to educate about 5,500 students for about $74 million.
York City's got almost no bells and whistles, and Central has just about all of the bells and whistles, plus the Taj Mahal of all high school buildings, available for about $34 million less.
Even if we take into consideration the $20 million or so the city pays directly to charter schools, that still leaves a difference of $14 million between the two districts.
I don't get it.
But if I were the superintendent or a school board member in the York City School District, I'd be hot-footing it over to Central to find out how they're doing it.
Because logic suggests to me there has to be a solution in there somewhere.
But do it before the state takes over the district, please, because after that I'm afraid all is lost.
Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.