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As the school year approaches, public school officials are scrambling to find new ways to pinch pennies and Pennsylvania Democrats are insisting they shouldn’t have to.
Pittsburgh area teachers joined State Representative Eugene DePasquale (D-York County) and party representatives to protest Governor Tom Corbett’s funding for education in the 2012-2013 budget. The budget maintains cuts enacted last year, which democrats called “draconian” and officials called too sudden and too drastic to allow schools to cope.
“We still have a fall legislative session,” said DePasquale, who insisted that even though next year’s budget has been passed, there is still time to enact more innovative solutions to the funding deficit.
“The governor has shown no creativity in trying to find ways to save money,” said DePasquale. “All he did was basically cut money to the school districts, and let’s be blunt about this, force school districts to make one of three choices: raise property taxes, cut programs, or a combination of both.”
Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said the cuts districts are experiencing are not coming from the state. “They continue to confuse the loss of federal stimulus dollars as cuts from the state level,” he said. “The loss of federal stimulus dollars from a couple years ago has impacted education across Pennsylvania, but that did not come from the state level.”
Opponents insist Corbett could have done more to support schools and lessen the blow. Gateway School District board Vice President Steve O’Donnell said his staff has been “in the trenches” dealing with the consequences of low funding for several years. Over the past year the district, which serves more than 4,000 K-12 students in Monroeville, has seen its budget reduced by more than $4 million, due to low funding and lack of revenue.
“Now what does that mean to us? Let me be very specific,” O’Donnell said. “It means that custodians were laid off. It means that maintenance workers were laid off. It means the classroom sizes went, in some cases, to as high as 30 and 31 children per classroom.” It also meant the furloughing of 18 teachers. His district has considered everything down to pencils and paper as a way to reduce costs, he said, and it simply can’t make ends meet alone.
DePasquale said the governor has been not been receptive to discussing state-wide measures that might help. For instance, DePasquale supported a proposal he said might save administrative costs by offering a state-wide healthcare benefit package for school employees, instead of negotiating deals at the district level. “Whether that would have worked or not, the governor was not willing to engage in that discussion,” he said.
DePasquale also said a state tax on Marcellus Shale drilling could go a long way toward achieving sustainable funding levels.
Eller said that point is moot. “The governor has made a commitment when he was campaigning for office, and he continues carrying out that commitment that he would not raise taxes,” he said “State government is not at a loss for funding. State government needs to go on a spending diet, if you will.”
Eller said the biggest cost driver for schools in Pennsylvania is labor, which can consume 70 to 80 percent of a school district’s budget. Discussions with unions on how to reduce those costs, he said, must happen at the district level.