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Pennsylvania School Districts Face Continued Financial Burdens

Pennsylvania school districts continue to believe that more pain awaits them in the 2016-2017 school year, with 46 percent predicting staff cuts, 34 percent projecting class-size increases, and 50 percent a reduction in education programs, according to a new survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

Districts anticipated increases in major areas, including pensions, health care, special education, and charter school tuition costs. And 85 percent of the districts that responded to the survey planned to increase property taxes this coming year. That's up from 71 percent last year. Eighty-three percent intended to rely on fund balance to get through the year.  

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Pennsylvania school districts have had a roller coaster of a year. Without a state budget for most of the academic year, districts were forced to improvise to make ends meet.

In the survey, 14 percent of the districts that responded said they borrowed additional money during the crisis. Districts said they borrowed $746 million in new money during the impasse. Fifteen percent said their credit ratings declined during that period, and another 17 percent said they expected their credit ratings to get worse in 2016-17, according to the report.

More than 140 school districts said they renegotiated, reduced, or delayed payments to vendors because of the budget stalemate.

Even with the budget crisis in the rearview mirror and a new basic education funding formula sending an additional $200 million to school districts, business managers and superintendents were not optimistic that they would be able to restore cuts made over the last six years.

Seventy-two percent said they would not be able to reduce or eliminate planned property-tax increases even with the additional funds from the basic education formula.  

Some school districts are still waiting on millions of dollars in capital construction funds from the state and will have to delay renovations and new construction, according to the report.

The report, "Continued Cuts: Losing Confidence, Losing Learning," took a slightly different bend this year, weaving in stories from school districts—beyond the ones that routinely make the news such as Philadelphia and Chester Upland—to illustrate how the financial squeeze in recent years has affected districts across the state.

In Coudersport Area School District, for example, Superintendent Alanna Huck said that pension costs have skyrocketed in the past six years so that they now account for 30 percent of salaries, compared to 5 percent not too long ago. The district has already reduced its staff. Teachers work as cafeteria aides and staff the library, and Huck has taken up some of the duties of the technology coordinator, Huck said.

"There's a line in the sand and I don't want to cut more from our kids," she said.

The report included responses from 355 of the state's 500 school districts and representation from all of the counties.

You can read the full report here.

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