OP-ED: The state needs to honor its obligations to school districts and taxpayers

John Posenau
York Suburban school board
York Suburban Senior High School in Spring Garden Township, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

This year the world has gone through extreme challenges. Our community is no exception. We endured rapidly spreading illness and death, isolation, and closed businesses. The last of these resulted in lost incomes and wage stagnation for many. Our public schools have not been spared these challenges.

Over the span of a couple of weeks in 2020, school districts were asked to transition to a remote in-home learning model. The primary objective in every district was to maximize the quality of education available while ensuring the safety of both students and staff. District curricula had to be redesigned into a remote learning  model. This transition was challenging for parents, students and faculty. While some students thrived, many others struggled.

To date, we have seen prognostications that our students have experienced performance losses. Even the Pennsylvania Department of Education is earmarking funding that must be dedicated to learning loss. The only way to know for sure, though, is through the issuance of annual standardized testing to see what the affect the pandemic has had on learning.

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Now that all willing teachers have been vaccinated and vaccines are becoming available throughout the general population, the primary concern is the return of all students to full-time in-person instruction. While districts look to return to traditional schooling, they must also figure out how to support those who choose to remain in remote learning.

Students choose the remote option for a variety of reasons: safety, convenience, perceived school district quality, or learning preferences. Whatever the reason, we should expect equitable quality between in-person learning and online learning. In Pennsylvania, families that choose a cyber charter simply do not receive the same quality of education they would receive in-person.

The York Suburban School District pays over $2.8 million annually to fund the approximately 183 students who select a charter education (roughly $15,000 per student and twice that for each special education student).

Because the state provides the district less than $900 per student, the local taxpayers fund the difference with no expectation of similar quality, and the difference in quality is striking.

The proficiency gap across the state between public schools and cyber is over 21%. In York Suburban the gap is much higher. Graduation trends are worse.

Quality at risk: In 2017 the legislature took steps to address these shortcomings. Versions of House Bill 97 were passed by both chambers. A key tenet of this bill was the ability for a local district to hold charter schools accountable for performance. If the achievement gap was greater than 15%, local funding could be withheld until the charter school improved.  It appears this bill was sent to committee, where it seems to have disappeared.

The story for in-person support is not much better. The disparity in Basic Education funding across our county is sizable. The legislature passed Act 35 in 2016 formalizing a Fair Funding Formula based on student needs and population. Unfortunately, the executive and legislative branches choose to only run increased funding through the formula, which meant that the bulk of school funding was applied using a decades-old model, penalizing growing districts to the benefit of shrinking districts.

We need not look very far to see the inequity. In 2019, for example, York Suburban received less than $900 per student where other schools in the county receive twice as much or more. The result is an undue burden placed on the local property taxpayers. The disparity means that York Suburban taxpayers are asked to fund nearly 80% of all educational costs, including those unfunded mandates such as charter school tuition prescribed by the state.

Local school boards work to keep the burden on their communities as low as possible while maintaining quality schools and a balanced budget. Most tax revenue goes directly to paying expenses; some contributes to fund balances, which serve as savings accounts and come in three flavors: committed, assigned and unassigned.

Committed fund balances are designated by the school board for a specific purposes such as building projects. Assigned fund balances are also designated by board and are intended for anticipated, long-term costs, such as construction, health care coverage, or pension costs. Unassigned fund balances are the dollars a school district reserves for emergencies or delays in state funding, which happens more often than one would think in Pennsylvania.

Why is the description of fund balance important? Growth in expenses is outstripping the district’s ability to raise revenue to meet those expenses. If fund balances are frequently required to meet those gaps, the school district has a long-term problem.

In our households, when expenses outstrip revenue we simply change our lifestyle to fit expenses. In a school district it is not as simple. Many of the district’s costs are fixed; they are mandated by state requirements and contract costs. Reducing expenses requires removing programs and reducing staff, impacting the quality of educational programs.

School boards and communities weigh these difficult decisions when faced with higher taxes and lacking state support. If our legislature continues to ignore the flawed state of school district funding and there’s no indication of change on the horizon, districts will be forced to re-examine current educational programming at the detriment of quality.

— John Posenau is president of the York Suburban school board.