Statewide report shows Pennsylvania districts struggling under mandated costs

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An annual statewide report released Friday shows school districts across Pennsylvania are struggling to pass budgets without scaling back programs and raising property taxes.

Continually rising mandated costs are outpacing the rate of education funding increases, leaving districts to foot the bill, according to the report, released Friday, Jan. 25, by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).

“From 2010-11 to 2016-17 mandated costs for pension, charter school tuition and special education alone increased by nearly $4 billion across all school districts," Robert Saul, a business administrator at East Penn School District and PASBO president, stated in a news release.

"During the same time, state support increased by less than $2 billion,” he continued. “This means that districts made up this massive $2 billion shortfall through cuts, increased property taxes — or both."

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Over the same period, York County saw mandated increases of $130.41 million, but state revenue streams only covered $85.25 million, according to annual financial reports and general fund budgets used for the report.

This left about $45 million in additional costs across the county's 16 districts, according to PASBO.

George Margetas, a West York Area school board member, said what makes mandated costs so cumbersome is that they make it hard to plan ahead.

Two new students who have special education needs might move into the district, and "there’s no way for us to know when it’s coming," he said, but it could push costs as high as $500,000.

Legislative changes might also create new mandates every two to three years, which makes it hard to do long-term budget planning, Margetas said.

"The annual budgetary gymnastics leave little opportunity for school districts to move forward or tackle new challenges," the release states. "At best they’re standing still; at worst, they’re marching backwards."

Each year, the PASBO and the PASA assess the financial condition of districts across the state to see where they have needs.

The data from their latest report is based on survey responses from 61 percent of school districts and public data from annual financial reports and general fund budgets submitted by all 500 school districts to the state Department of Education.

Other needs: According to the report, districts also have seen growing special education populations, an increase in the number of students requiring private placements or other high-cost services and a need to hire additional special education staff.

York County districts budgeted $14.46 million more for special education instruction this year compared with  two years earlier — not including special education support services — equating to a two-year average annual increase of 4.74 percent per year, according to PASBO.

School safety funding  also is a priority for state districts, but resources are thin.

Pennsylvania school districts had requested more than $300 million in competitive safe schools grants in December, but the state only allocated $40 million for current year grants, stated Mark DiRocco, PASA’s executive director.

More:Central York takes lead in school safety as districts compete for grants

Jay Himes, executive director of PASBO, pointed to an education deficit in the state.

“School districts start from behind each year, struggling to find the revenue to cover just the basics," he stated. "Layering additional needs such as safety and security on top of already-fragile budgets exacerbates this deficit."

Himes believes increased state support — especially if targeted to areas driving the deficit, such as special education, could help relieve the burden on students and taxpayers.