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Pennsylvania Survey Shows Schools Layoffs, Spending of Reserves

Pennsylvania school districts began this academic year having eliminated more than 14,000 jobs, according to a new survey, which attempts to provide a state-level look at the damage caused by budget cuts and overall economic woes.

The survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators was conducted of 294 of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, including Philadelphia. It found that school systems laid off 5,106 employees and elected not to fill 3,259 openings created by retirements and resignations.

The survey projects job losses across the rest of the state's districts and comes up with an estimate of 14,159 positions in 2011-12 that have either been eliminated or left vacant.

Other findings in the survey aren't likely to surprise district leaders in other states. Seventy percent of Pennsylvania districts said they have increased class sizes above the 2010-2011 academic year; 44 percent have reduced electives; 35 percent have reduced or eliminated programs designed to provide extra help or tutoring to struggling students.

We've been reporting on the impact of state and local budget cuts on schools, in terms of layoffs and problems that personnel shakeups have created for teachers and others who stay on the job and are handed more responsibility.

The Pennsylvania survey found found that some districts have raised taxes to make up for lost revenue, while others have held the line.

More than seven in 10 districts said they tapped reserve funds to balance their budgets.

"These reserves are like family savings accounts," the authors of the survey say. "They set funds aside to pay for planned major expenses such as a school construction project or increased state pension costs or to address emergencies like replacing a broken boiler or replacing a leaky roof."

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said that some of the cuts were caused by the end of federal stimulus funds, and that the state's districts had been warned to prepare for the loss of that money. In addition, the number of teaching personnel in the state has risen over the last decade, even as student enrollment has fallen, Eller explained in an e-mail. (The state's secretary of education, Ron Tomalis, has made similar arguments recently.)

Gov. Tom Corbett has called for school districts and teachers to agree to salary freezes to help ease their budget woes. Eller said the department's preliminary research indicated relatively few districts had done so. (A recent, informal survey, released by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, seems to back that up. It found that 161 of 500 districts had imposed some kind of wage freeze, with 152 school systems reporting that administrators have taken that step and 93 indicating that teachers have done so, by the organization's most recent count. The PSBA says the tally is changing as it gathers new information.)

"Ultimately, taxpayers are paying the bills and school districts across the Commonwealth must live within their means," Eller said in an e-mail.

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