A bill that would authorize state takeover of York City and three other school districts lost its collective bargaining hammer but is still close to getting nailed down.
The bill calls for the creation of a new program for districts under financial duress that involves the state's appointing someone to oversee their finances and draft a plan the district must enact.
An amended version of the bill passed in the Senate Tuesday, with full York County support; all Democrats opposed it. It now heads back to the House for a vote.
The amended version, though, doesn't have the teeth of the original version, said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, chairman of the education committee. That's in part because the Pennsylvania State Education Association's strong opposition led to a negotiation with lawmakers to have some collective bargaining language removed.
"It's not as strong as it was, but it's still a pretty strong bill," Piccola said.
Lawmakers took out the bill's power to force a teachers' union to accept a wage freeze or any other contract conditions a state receiver decided. PSEA's leadership said they would have fought any forced contract changes to the bitter end in court.
The program still gives the district's receiver, appointed by the state to oversee the district's budget, the authority to reopen a contract. But if the two sides don't reach an agreement within 90 days, the original contract terms remain, Piccola said. And the receiver can call for schools to be converted into private or charter schools, as long as a fiscal analysis is done, he added.The amendment was enough to withdraw some of the protest by PSEA, although they still object to the bill overall, said PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever.
"PSEA still has concerns that the bill does not provide for direct additional funding for distressed school districts, beyond a loan program, and cannot support the bill," he said in a statement.York City is still at the heart of the bill as one of four affected schools, including Chester Upland, Duquesne City and Harrisburg.
If the bill is enacted, the receiver would work with district officials to come up with a plan. The school board would then have to vote on it, and would be bound to follow it if it approves it. And if the board doesn't approve it, the state would go to court to try to force it to do so, Piccola said.
Piccola said districts have for too long expected the state to make up for their financial woes rather than make necessary budget adjustments.York City school officials feel differently.
"We know we're underfunded," said Superintendent Deborah Wortham.
York City, like every other school district, had its charter school tuition reimbursement from the state taken away in this past school year's budget; it is absent in next year's budget proposal as well.
Other grant funding is cut or missing as well, although state officials emphasize overall education funding is at its highest ever.
York City School Board President Margie Orr said she doesn't like the idea of state intervention but feels better after she and Wortham got the chance to meet with some lawmakers and explain their situation.
With the district now officially closing its two middle schools, making staff cuts and finding alternative revenue sources, Orr said she thinks lawmakers are pleased with its progress, albeit not enough to leave York City off the financially distressed list.
"I think we convinced them we are moving in the right direction," Orr said.
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