Local school administrators gathered Tuesday to vent their frustrations about the state budget impasse, and sought ways to pressure elected officials to pass a budget quickly.
Nearly 60 school directors and administrators from 12 districts in Lawrence, Butler and Mercer counties met at the Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV in Grove City to discuss ways they could encourage legislators and the governor restore money to school districts.
The meeting was spearheaded by New Castle Superintendent John Sarandrea, after he blamed the eight-month impasse on state Rep. Mike Turzai at a recent New Castle Area School Board meeting.
Some school districts are getting near to closing their doors because they do not have the funds to operate, Nathan Mains, Pennsylvania School Board Association executive director, told the group.
Mains said he is not suggesting any school district close as a political statement. However, despite everyone’s best efforts, some districts are going to shut down because they are running out of money, “and they’re out of options.”
One of those is the Erie School District, where the board of education approved a $30 million line of credit during the budget impasse.
Mains pledged PSBA’s help in giving all of the districts statewide guidance in taking steps to get the attention of the legislature so that they see that things are in “crisis.”
Suggestions bantered about at Tuesday’s session were:
•A barrage of phone calls to state legislators from school boards and administration and even parents, statewide.
•Using a snow day, statewide, as a protest day for a protest march in Harrisburg.
•Putting up billboards that blame the state legislature for the students’ lack of education this year, and that schools, conceivably, could close.
•School districts refraining from passing their own budgets in June with a lack of knowledge of how much in subsidies they will receive.
“Individually, it doesn’t seem to matter to the powers that be, that school districts are having a rough time,” commented Dr. Wayde Killmeyer, the IU IV executive director, who sponsored the meeting. The town hall idea was an outgrowth of discussions among superintendents with Killmeyer.
“From the people who set the budget, such as it is, to the governor, the attitude seems to be, ‘well, we sent 45 percent of the money, and the schools are all still open, so everything must be fine,’” Killmeyer said, “and we know that’s not true.”
Killmeyer said the state Department of Education on Monday sent a checklist to all intermediate unit directors for districts to follow, should it come to where a district will have to shut down this year due to the lack of funding. He said he is forwarding that to all 27 superintendents in the unit.
“There is no guidance in the school code about that, because this has never happened before,” he said.
Mains discouraged districts from pointing a finger at a particular legislator, such as New Castle superintendent John J. Sarandrea did with Republican Speaker of the House Mike Turzai at a recent school board meeting.
“They’re all at fault, they’re all to blame, nobody’s doing their jobs effectively, and our job is to get them all to say, ‘enough is enough,’” Main said.
He said that a recent survey by PSBA of school districts about the impact of the budget impasse garnered responses from 195 of 500 districts. Of those that responded, 35 districts already have seen their credit ratings negatively impacted, he said.
Twenty one percent of the districts said they eliminated professional development opportunities, and others have eliminated instructional materials and supplies.
“Four districts have said they only would be able to make it through (financially) to February,” he said.
He continued that 168 districts said they would be forced to raise property taxes, while 175 said they have filed plans to raise taxes above the index.
Twenty-seven percent of the responders said they are foregoing needed building maintenance, technology they wanted to launch, or expansion of kindergarten programs, Mains said.
Some districts are skipping payments — 29 percent cited charter school payments they’ve now dropped, 17 percent aren’t meeting their pension obligations, 14 percent are cutting vendor payments, and debt service is in that mix, he said. Of those districts that have received 45 percent of their funding, 68 percent used money to backfill money they’ve already spent, and 54 percent used those funds for payroll, Mains said.
“If people are telling you that you’ve got 45 percent, so you should be able to go forward ... this isn’t helping to keep schools open,” Means said. “It’s just paying the debt we ran up during the budget crisis. This is a bad situation.”
Mains noted that all school districts are expected to pass budgets before July 1.
“It is a part of your legal obligation,” he said, “but how do you do that if you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to be receiving from the state?”
Districts in the past could look to the previous year of funding, consistently, for a sense of where the funding would be the next year, Mains said.
But the state didn’t pass a budget this year, so “how will you make the assumption of what you’re getting from the state? We don’t have much advice on that at this point. I think you’re playing a guessing game.”
He said that PSBA is getting legal advice on whether districts, if faced with an inability to discern the state funding, would have to fulfill their obligation to pass the district budgets. He encouraged districts to also discuss that with their solicitors.
“You all fulfilled your obligation last year, but it may be little tricker this time,” he said.
Board members and administrators attending from Lawrence County represented the area school districts of New Castle, Wilmington, Shenango, Ellwood City and Union. Other districts represented were Jamestown, West Middlesex, Mercer, Commodore Perry, Butler Area, Sharon, Farrell and Greenville.