As a taxpayer and resident of the School District of the City of York, and the parent of school-age children, I have avidly followed the financial recovery process. Initially I was optimistic that, finally, the York Metro community would begin the only just and effective solution, consolidation, which has been strongly recommended by David Rusk and, until now, advocated by York Counts.
That optimism has now been quashed by York Counts abdicating it advocacy for justice, and also, by the advisory board's elimination of that option because it would be "too hard to do" and it would "take too long."
And so we appear to be on an inexorable path to the institutionalization of separate and unequal education systems in York County and Pennsylvania: one system for the urban poor and another for the suburban well off. This is unconstitutional and violates the civil rights of the urban district residents.
The advisory board has established three criteria by which to evaluate options: that the solution provides a safe environment for learning, that it promotes academic success and that it is financially sustainable. I laud the board's inclusion of safety and academics as considerations. But I accuse them of failing to include the most important criterion of all: Justice. I define justice as each receiving what is due to him or her. And I contend that what is due to the youth of York are the same educational opportunities available to the youth of York Suburban School District, Central York School District and West York School District and all the other financially viable school districts in Pennsylvania.
Because school district officials requested an advance payment of state aid in 2012 the district has been designated by the state Secretary of Education as in "moderate financial recovery." The state has appointed a recovery officer. The recovery officer has appointed an advisory committee to help him analyze proposed recovery strategies and to make a recommendation on the strategy to select. The recovery officer will recommend a recovery plan to the school board. If the school board does not approve the recovery plan, then the state will appoint a receiver who will implement the recommended recovery plan.
So we dare not forget that this process is about money. Concerns about safety and academic failure have been endemic for decades, yet these concerns have not produced so draconian a state reaction as the financial recovery process. Under the state's current scheme and priorities for funding public schools, the School District of the City of York is not financially viable; the methods, sources and formulae for funding school districts in Pennsylvania do not yield adequate revenue for York to provide and sustain a rich educational program comparable to that provided by the neighboring districts.
Hence every solution under consideration must reduce the cost of education in the school district. Since the bulk of the costs of education are for professional staff, the only way to adequately reduce cost is to drastically reduce the compensation of professional staff, i.e. administrators, teachers, counselors, etc., putting York at a disadvantage in the recruitment and retention of professional staff in competition with Suburban, Central, West York and all other Pennsylvania school districts that are free of the contrived fiscal constraints.
Three local tax bases are the primary funding sources for school districts: real estate, earned income and realty transfer. The current boundaries of the York school district define a geographic area characterized by urban blight, poverty, gang and drug-related violence, middle class flight, a comparably low and declining value real estate tax base burdened with a high percentage of tax exempt regional assets. The downtown is a bustling commercial, entertainment and business district and there are some very nice residential neighborhoods, but all are struggling under a burdensome tax rate imposed by the school district and the city. And the tax burden, along with perceived safety issues in the school district, is fueling the middle class flight to the suburbs.
A comparison of some demographics from the 2010 census is instructive and brings into stark relief the differences between the city and the surrounding suburbs. The minority population in York City is 64.6 percent compared to the minority population in the county of 9.3 percent. In the city 28.7 percent of the population is under 18 and 8.9 percent are over 65, while in the county at large the respective proportions are 23.1 percent and 14.6 percent. The per capita income in the city is $14,669 while in the overall county it is $28,042. Household income in the city is $29,814 compared to $58,556 in the whole county. Most telling of all is that the percentage of the city population below poverty is 35.5 percent while in the county it is 9.4 percent.
In the York City School District, over 90 percent of the student population is on free or reduced price meals due to poverty, and the special education population in York schools is four times the state average. Finally, and also telling, are the real estate values: The average value of owner-occupied houses in the city is $83,800 while in the county it is $178,400. Sales prices in the city are even worse, at about $30,000. Until two years ago, the total real estate tax base value of the York school district has remained at the same value since the last reassessment in 2006. Over the past two years hundreds of thousands of tax dollars have been lost through tax assessment appeals. Moreover, 38 percent of the real estate tax base value of the York district is tax-exempt, including colleges, county, state and federal government facilities, large valuable church property held by congregations who do not live in the city, social service agencies and other "charitable" facilities.
What do these demographic measures tell us about the city and the surrounding suburbs? They tell us that the city has a high proportion and a high concentration of poor, young, minority children. They tell us that four times the state average of York City students have special emotional, educational, health and psychological needs. They tell us that the tax bases from which the school district is mandated to draw its resources are scant and stagnant in comparison to the surrounding suburbs and are, indeed, inadequate to yield sufficient resources to fund the education of the children. They tell us that the combination of perceived educational inadequacy, safety concerns and high taxes are driving the middle class from the city, further exacerbating the problems.
York City is an island of poverty, and a good deal of human misery and hopelessness, surrounded by an ocean of plenty. The financial problems of the school district, like those of the city, are not the result of mismanagement or malfeasance. The financial problems result from an artificial boundary that corrals the impoverished, with all of the needs that come with such poverty, into an area with inadequate resources to support the basic education and special education of the youth of York. No evidence has been adduced to support a conclusion that the cost of education in York is disproportionately high compared to the surrounding districts, while there is consensus in all knowledgeable circles that the tax bases in York City are inadequate to support the education and public services owed to the residents of the city, and even by those who commute into the city to work.
Yet the whole process appears engineered to address costs, that are not the problem, instead of the dearth of resources, which is the problem.
The recovery officer and most advisory board members appear focused on an all charter option or an internal revitalization model. While the claim is made that academic improvement and safety are requirements of any plan, it is obvious that cost reduction is the driving principle, with PFM's model and projections as a kind of Procrustean bed that sets the size to which the cost of any solution must be cut. But the focus on a York district only, cost-cutting solution does not solve the problems. It leaves intact the concentrated poverty, concentrated minority youth, concentrated special needs, drug and gang violence, stagnant tax base and high taxes. The district tax bases are stagnant. The real estate tax base has declined over the past two years. The earned income tax base, as reflected in the per capita income, has grown a paltry 7.82 percent in the 10 years from 2000 to 2010, 0.78 percent per year. Even if the cost of education in York City were to grow a mere 2 percent per year, the tax base growth is inadequate to meet it.
As a result of the Corbett Administration's public school funding policies school districts throughout the state have suffered turmoil. But the urban schools, including York, Harrisburg, Reading, Chester-Upland and others have suffered the most. Security, predictability, and order are critical conditions for learning, especially amongst impoverished youth who often do not enjoy such conditions outside school. The learning experience of students in the York City School District has been convulsed, stripped down and crammed in, so the district can stay within its resources. Hundreds of staff, including professional educators, clerical and support staff and blue collar workers have been furloughed. Two buildings have been closed and class sizes have grown, in some cases by 100 percent or more. Academic programs have been reduced or cut entirely, including, of all things, social studies. Art, music, sports and physical education have been pared down or eliminated. Even the school swimming pool has been drained, the soccer program eliminated and music eliminated until parents stepped forward to keep it alive: parents who are already burdened by a crushing tax burden.
The children do not know from one year to the next what academic programs will be available, who their teachers will be or what building they will go to. For these impoverished youth, education is their one chance to get out of the squalor and want that for many have been the living conditions of their family for generations. The disruptions to public education in York in the past and the possibilities of such disruptions in the future have yanked the rug out from under these children, and it is likely that most will never gain or regain their footing.
The only solution that will dilute the concentration of poverty and minorities, relieve the crushing burden of taxes on the city middle class, eliminate the annual disruptions and uncertainties caused by finances, and provide a rich academic experience for all the students in the York City metropolitan area is consolidation.
To those who say it is too hard, will take too long or will be opposed by the other districts, I say remember that it was not so long ago that some opposed black folks being allowed to ride in the front of the bus, eat at the lunch counter, use the rest room or drink from the water fountain. The Pennsylvania Constitution, Article III, Section 14, provides that the "General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education ..." This obligation is not being met in the urban areas. And, the proposals under consideration will result in a separate education system for poor urban minorities.
It is well within the discretion of the financial recovery officer to say to the Department of Education that the only effective and just solution to the York City School District problem is consolidation. I urge the advisory committee to recommend that plan to the recovery officer. I urge the recovery officer to propose that solution to the school board. I recommend that the school board go to the commonwealth secretary of education and ask to be consolidated with surrounding school districts. And I recommend that York Counts support and pursue consolidation of York City, West York, Central York and York Suburban school districts.
-- Michael J. O'Rourke is a resident of York City and also the city's business administrator.