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Nearby districts struggle to make up for shortfalls

Economically depressed communities and urban hubs like Chester and Upper Darby have been hard hit by school budget cuts.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When his counterparts describe handing out iPads to students, Joseph Otto just tunes out the conversation.

Otto is chief operations officer of the William Penn School District in Delaware County, just across Cobbs Creek from Southwest Philadelphia. His district limps along from year to year by paring back services and staff and putting off investments in books, technology, and other classroom needs. The local school board is loath to raise taxes any higher because the district’s residents already shoulder some of the highest tax burdens in the region.

“iPads are not even an option for us,” said Otto.

“We do nothing extra. We’re just trying to survive.”

Like the School District of Philadelphia, numerous districts in the region and across the state are struggling to make up for shortfalls in state funding, anemic local revenues, and hefty payouts to charter schools.

Especially hard hit are economically distressed communities in the aging suburbs abutting Philadelphia as well as urban hubs like Chester, Upper Darby, Norristown, and Pottstown, where low-cost housing draws families unable to afford pricier homes in the suburbs.

District budgets took a double hit a couple of years back when $4 billion in federal stimulus money distributed over three years dried up and the Corbett administration flatlined state aid to local schools. The resulting cuts in state aid impacted virtually all of the state’s 500 school districts, but those in high-poverty and less affluent areas were hit hardest, according to Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).

Solidly middle-class districts had received less state aid and lost less in real dollars.

“When the cuts happened, they fell disproportionately on the districts” that were already struggling, Buckheit said.

Sharing the shortfall

The advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth recently released The Bottom Line is Children: Public Education in Montgomery County. The report, the first in a series that looks at the state of public education in each of Philadelphia’s suburban counties, reveals that Montgomery County’s 21 school districts experienced a shortfall of $34 million over fiscal years 2010-11 and 2011-12 for lack of a state funding formula. The lion’s share of those funds would have gone to Pottstown, Norristown, and a few other cash-strapped districts.

“In spite of the relative wealth of the county, every district has less state money than in 2010,” said Donna Cooper, PCCY’s executive director.

The shortfall for the 15 districts in Delaware County was about $45 million for that time period, according to PCCY. The 13 districts in Bucks County sustained a $24 million setback, and the 21 districts in Chester County lost a combined $42 million in state funding.

PCCY looked at funding, per-pupil spending, academic achievement, and other indicators for Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. The organization is releasing four “Bottom Line County Reports” to bring the public up to date on key education issues.

Across the last three budget cycles, districts have pulled the reins on spending.

According to Buckheit, whose group annually surveys local school officials, numerous districts dug into fund balances, then went after what he characterized as “low-hanging fruit, the relatively easy things” – extracurricular activities, field trips, then summer school and afterschool tutoring, no matter the educational value of such programs.

District administrators also reported cuts to paraprofessionals, including classroom, playground and bus aides. Professional staff cutbacks were achieved through attrition when a staffer resigned or retired.

Analyses of state jobs data show that about 20,000 school employees – half of them teachers – have been either furloughed or not replaced over the last three years.

Pennsylvania “had 130,000 teachers, but we’re below 120,000 now,” Buckheit noted.

“In reality, you can see what schools look like, and it’s very different from three years ago. There are fewer nurses, fewer guidance counselors … and districts have lost … a lot of administration positions – the people who deal with discipline and provide extra support,” said Buckheit.

William Penn’s plight is a case in point.

Two years ago, after $4 million in federal stimulus money ran out, the district used half its $5 million reserve fund to balance its budget and cut 60 positions from its professional staff. Plus, “we’ve put off the buying of books and supplies … and contracted out maintenance,” said Otto. But “we’ve run out of areas to cut.”

And one expense has risen steeply. The district will pay out nearly $5 million to Chester Community Charter School and several virtual charter schools, a sum that takes a big bite out of its $85 million budget.

The school board has not raised taxes in recent years, with good reason. The tax rates for schools and local services are some of the highest in the region for the six little towns – Lans-downe, East Lansdowne, Darby, Aldan, Yeadon, and Colwyn – that make up the district adjacent to Philadelphia.

Tax rates in those towns are exponentially higher than nearby prospering suburban communities.

The tax bill on a $30,000 home in Aldan, for instance, was just over $4,000 five years ago, about what a homeowner in Upper Merion Township would pay in taxes on a $300,000 home. That was one finding of a 2008 analysis of 500,000 tax records by The Inquirer, which concluded that “wildly disparate property tax rates are widening the economic divide between have and have-not towns.”

The ability of districts to collect local taxes has a dramatic impact on what’s available to students in terms of class size, technology, electives, professional and paraprofessional support, and extracurricular activities.

According to the PCCY analysis, Lower Merion had per-pupil instructional spending of just over $16,000. That’s about $7,000 more than what Upper Perkiomen in the northern reaches of the county spent per student. PCCY points out that this translates into $142,000 more spending per class of 20 students in Lower Merion than in Upper Perkiomen.

In Delaware County, per pupil spending in Radnor was nearly two-thirds higher than in Penn Delco, the county’s lowest-spending district. According to the PCCY report, “without a fair funding formula for public education, Delaware County will remain divided between the haves and the have nots.”

Needing state support

Another development has had an impact on schools already hard-pressed to serve their neediest children. According to the PCCY report, the poverty rate for children (as defined by participation in free or reduced-price lunch programs) has risen in every district in Montgomery County, in some cases dramatically.

That finding mirrors the situation in the William Penn district. Six years ago, about half the district’s students qualified for the federal lunch program, while 80 percent of students qualify this fall, according to Otto.

Even solidly funded districts are wary of what may yet transpire without strong state support.

Walter Lapidus, president of the Springfield Township School Board in Montgomery County, said his district has not experienced any serious cutbacks in services or staffing, though “we’re very conscious of how we use the money.” The district refinanced debt several years ago and “as people retire, we don’t necessarily rehire,” he said. Yet none of the cutbacks have been draconian.

“Funding is a statewide problem,” said Lapidus.

“We’re watching how the governor handles the ships that are sinking now. But we’re not going to be one of the first [to sink]. We’ll be one of the last.”

Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, called for the legislature to reinstate “a predictable funding formula” and for boosting investment at the state level. Shapiro appeared with Cooper in Norristown in November for the release of the PCCY report, which called for the creation of a countywide coalition to focus on the funding issues.

PASA’s Buckheit reiterated that funding problems have impacted districts of every size and demographic across Pennsylvania.

“The proof is in the schools themselves. There are fewer books, fewer computers – all the things that make education richer and better,” he said.

“And this is not just an urban problem. We have many rural and poor districts, and their situation is not dissimilar to what the urban districts are facing.”

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