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Rural school districts feel the sting of budget cuts

The front of Bentworth Middle School. Bentworth School District is one of several rural Pennsylvania schools feeling the sting of budget cuts. Photo courtesy of Bentworth School District
The front of Bentworth Middle School. Bentworth School District is one of several rural Pennsylvania schools feeling the sting of budget cuts. Photo courtesy of Bentworth School District

By Megan Guza

Point Park News Service

Bentworth Middle School sits tucked along a winding, rural road off the main street of the Borough of Bentleyville. The sprawling building looks out onto a cow pasture. To its right, a farmhouse.

Superintendent Charles Baker says the building – just five years out of construction – is a far cry from the technological and educational advancements he hoped it would be.

“We have this beautiful new middle school building, one of the most beautiful in Pennsylvania,” he said. “And it no longer has a librarian. It no longer has a technology teacher. It no longer has family and consumer science.”

Bentworth is just one of the many rural schools across the state that has been hit hard by budget cuts. As a result, Baker said, the district has been forced to trim, eliminate and reorganize to make ends meet.

“Those positions have been eliminated,” he said. “Computer labs, a beautiful library, a beautiful state-of-the-art family and consumer science room – and nobody’s using them.”

Bentworth, in southwestern Washington County, saw a loss of more than $670,000  in state funding in the years from 2010-11 to 2012-13, down to $6,086,249 from $6,756,569 – a drop of 9.92 percent. Rural schools in the county lost $4,188,547 across six districts between 2010 and 2012. Funding among the schools in 2010-2011 was $45,560,056.

Penn State University education professor William Hartman, a specialist in school district finance, said that while schools all across the state have been hit with cuts, rural districts face a unique – and often crippling – challenge.

Because of the way funding works, poorer schools receive more of their total revenue from state funding while wealthy schools get a larger portion of funding from local taxes.

“Rural schools, which tend to be poorer, are hit harder than suburban schools,” he said. “Two years ago when Gov. Corbett and the Republican legislature voted to cut a billion dollars out of public education from state money, the hardest hit were those that relied more on it – poorer rural districts.”

It’s a phenomenon Baker has seen as well.

It ties back to taxes, he said. Pennsylvania public school districts are limited in how much they can raise taxes per year. While the amount varies by district, Bentworth can raises taxes just 2 mills each year.

Taxes are based on property value, Baker said, and when Bentworth raises taxes by one mill, the district gets just $39,000. In urban Peters Township Area School District, a mill of taxes equals about $1.2 million because of the larger population and higher property values.

“It’s not a fair ratio,” he said. “We’re paying a higher price here because we don’t have the financial wherewithal to recover.”

Derry Area School District, in northern-central Westmoreland County, also has felt the pressure of annual state funding cuts. There is no getting around making district cuts to fit within a shrinking state budget, Superintendent David Welling said.

“When you rely heavily on state subsidies and there’s a 20-percent reduction, it’s gonna impact your programs,” he said.

Welling said shrinking state funding has forced him to reduce both teaching personnel and administrators. In the past four years, the school has eliminated two administrative positions and nine teaching positions. Like Bentworth, Derry Area has had to make significant cuts to technology.

“We’ve basically told the tech department that we’re on hold – just maintain what we have. And that’s significant,” Welling said.

“It’s tough on school districts and it’s tough on the kids.”

It is a sentiment that Ligonier Valley superintendent Catherine Oldham said she knows well.

“When you don’t get that state subsidy that you have in the past, it really is not just an incremental problem,” she said. “It continues to multiply. The problem just becomes a really vicious snowball.”

As a cost-cutting measure, the district closed one of its schools – Laurel Valley Middle/High School – at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, and students in grades six through 12 were sent to Ligonier Valley middle and high schools. Furloughs of teachers and support staff created a savings of about $1.2 million a year.

But it also came with one unexpected challenge.

“What happened as a result,” Oldham said, “was a mass exodus to cyber schools.”

In Pennsylvania, cyber schools receive the same amount of money per student as school districts, resulting in a loss of money for the district in which the student had previously attended school. When those students move to cyber school in droves, Oldham said, it can cause a large drain on already shrinking state funds.

The average daily membership – the average number of students attending classes per day – of Ligonier Valley students attending charter schools more than doubled between 2009-2010, the year before the closing of the Laurel Valley School, and 2010-2011.

In 2009-10, the average number of Ligonier Valley students attending cyber school was 50.588 and cost the district $397,834.77. The following year, after the closures, that number jumped to 114.248 – costing $1,060,230.38.

The state’s basic education subsidy covers about one-third of the cyber school cost to the district, Oldham said.

With constant furloughs and cuts, it’s hard to avoid it affecting morale, she said. Many young teachers, she said, are left holding their breath, hoping they’ll be employed next year.

“That sure makes it hard,” she said. “It makes it difficult when you know there’s that possibility, to always have that lingering in the back of your mind.”

Baker, the Bentworth superintendent, likens the cyber school tradeoff to stealing.

Bentworth, he said, gets about $9,000 per student from the state. That money goes toward teacher salaries, heating, lighting, water, transportation and so on.

“In cyber school,” he said, “they get a bottom-line computer. They don’t go to a building; they don’t ride a bus. They’re not providing heat, electric or water for the child. One teacher has 60 to 80 kids they never see face-to-face. But they get the same amount of money. It almost seems illegal.”

The frustration, Baker said, has begun have an effect on attitudes.

“To be quite frank,” he said, “it has had a very negative impact on morale in some situations here. Part of the issue is with the teachers’ wage freeze.”

With one segment of teachers not taking the freeze, he said, animosity has cropped up amongst the teachers.­­­­

The worst consequence, all agreed, is the effect on the students.

Derry Area superintendent Welling said if students aren’t feeling the trickledown effect now, they will.

“Having funds to be able to train your staff on strategies and then to effectively implement them is critical,” he said. “And without funding, it can have an impact on your ability to do that.”

In the 2011-2012 school year, eight of the 21 rural districts in Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties met the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark put forth by the federal No Child Left Behind program. Based on the results of the state-administered Pennsylvania State System of Assessment exams, the benchmark measures attendance or graduation, academic performance and test participation.

Eleven schools in those counties received a warning status, meaning the district did not make adequate progress for the first time in the current year. Schools are not subject to consequences and are given a year to reevaluate strategies.

Brownsville Area School District in Fayette County received a status of District Improvement I. School administrators are charged with developing an improvement plan for the school, which will receive technical assistance.

Connellsville Area School District, also in Fayette County, was the only rural district in the area to receive a status of District Improvement II. Academic performance fell below for three years. The district is required to offer and pay for supplemental services such as tutoring.

Connellsville superintendent David Lujetic said funding cuts create a vicious cycle. The school, he said, will be required to offer supplemental instruction and find a way to free up teachers to do so.

“Theoretically, we would hire more teachers,” he said. “But we can’t, so the tests are going to tell us we need more supplemental instruction, and we’re not able to do it. So we take away from other curriculum, and that in and of itself is a vicious cycle.”

Hartman, the Penn State education professor, said that while he would not label budget cuts a direct contributor to lower test scores, the cuts can play a role.

“You can follow certain logic to it,” he said. “What districts have tended to do is protect the classroom and let the burden fall heavier on activities outside of the classroom.”

Those, he said, tend to be support services like those that provide extra help for students who are suffering academically and need extra help.

“Logic would indicate that scores go down or do not increase because of less support,” he said.

And, he said, it’s only going to get worse.

The state legislature, he said, has the power to fix funding, and unless they do so, the situation will not improve. The chances of that are slim, he said, and the 2014-2015 school year is likely to be the worst.

Hartman said lawmakers need to make the system more equitable and deal with looming problems such as pension shortfalls.

“It’s not fixable,” he said. “It severely needs to be fixed.”

Bentworth superintendent Baker said he sees the same issue. The pension program in the state, he said, is tremendously underfunded.

“What has happened here is the pension that [teachers in Pennsylvania] get is absurdly high compared to the rest of the nation,” Baker said. “They have discovered now that the pension fund doesn’t have enough money in it to handle the number of people retiring.”

Because of this, he said, school districts are being required to pay more money to cover the pension costs. Bentworth, he said, must factor in an extra $300,000 to cover the increase in the cost.

“The following year, we have to do the same thing,” he said. “In two to three years, we’re out of money.”

Bentworth, so far, has escaped being forced to furlough faculty and staff, but not without cost.

District office employees took a wage freeze last year, and the district’s teachers took a semi-wage freeze. Baker said that because of provisions pertaining to retirement in state law, the district was not able to do a wage freeze for a certain segment of the teachers.

“The teachers agreed to this,” he said. “Half took the wage freeze – they were mostly younger teachers. Older teachers that make more money, they didn’t take the wage freeze.”

Bentworth band director and music teacher Brandon VanSickle said that while the wage freeze hurts, it is a sacrifice he and others were willing to make. By taking the wage freeze, those teachers who did so were able to save the full-time status of a fellow teacher.

“In order to protect the best interests of my students and the music department, I was in favor of taking a wage freeze instead of losing a music teacher to part-time status,” he said.  “When it comes to arts education, once a cut is made, it’s never coming back.”

Seventh-year high school English and journalism teacher Dana Lusk said that the wage freeze was made with the understanding that some of the money would be recouped in the 2012-2013 salary year.

“The rub is that we took a significant salary cut and have to pay into our insurance under this new contract,” she said. “This makes it a substantial loss.”

Shock and disappointment, she said, came with the new contract.

In addition to the cuts made at the middle school, Bentworth has also had to make cuts at the high school level as well.

“We’ve had to remove some of the courses. Classes kids have been able to take in the past are no longer offered,” he said. “We haven’t been able to replace teachers, so their classes are no longer there.”

Opportunities for special needs students has shrunk, he said. Field trips and other activities have been cut.

All middle school sports were cut. Open positions haven’t been filled. Equipment purchases haven’t been made. Capital projects have been postponed.

“We just don’t have the money to do what we need to do,” he said.

For now, Baker’s beautiful new middle school library sits without a librarian, the computer lab without new technology and the state-of-the-art family and consumer science classroom out of use.

The only solution as far as he can see, he said, is more funding from the government.

“I don’t see that happening,” he said. “Many small school districts – we just don’t have the finances to make it up. We’re going to be broke.”

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