This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A survey of Pennsylvania superintendents and school business officials offers a bleak portrait of the state of education in the commonwealth.
With mandated costs growing faster than revenues, districts across the state report that they are planning to cut staff, increase class sizes, and curtail programs and extracurriculars — all while raising local property taxes.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) started conducting surveys of their members in 2010-11, as a way to document the effects of budget cuts.
This year’s survey offered "the worst outlook."
"No one imagined that in all this time, state policymakers would still have failed to take meaningful action to curb growing expenses or that the state share of school funding would still be declining," said the report. "No one imagined that our school leaders would be losing confidence in state policy makers and students would still be losing learning opportunities."
Seventy-one percent of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts participated in the survey — at least one from every county. The student demographics of the participating districts mirror the state as a whole.
School officials say cuts and tax increases are necessary to counter the fact that a growing share of their budgets is being eaten by mandated expenses.
"Districts project increases in mandated expenses for pensions (100 percent), health care (84 percent), special education (88 percent), and charter schools (77 percent), higher in every category than in previous reports," the study stated.
Pension obligations have risen rapidly over the last few years as a consequence of state policy decisions and too-sunny market projections.
This year, districts expect a staggering 24 percent increase in their pension payments.
"We’ve made it work the last six years, but we’re at the end of the list of what we can do," said Alanna Huck, the Coudersport Area District’s superintendent, who was quoted in the report. "There’s a line in the sand, and I don’t want to cut more from our kids."
Payments to charter schools have also been rising steadily.
Bill Nichols, superintendent of the Corry Area School District in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, says the cost of students leaving for cyber charters has been especially frustrating.
For every student who attends a non-district cyber, Corry Area pays over twice as much as it costs to educate a student in its own cyber program.
Nichols said cyber charter students often return to the district a few years later, after they have fallen behind grade level.
"It’s as if we’re paying for them twice," he said in the report, "once to attend a cyber and again to remediate when they rejoin our schools."