June 2016

Financial Stability Fair Funding for Public Education and West Perry School District

Posted by Micheal O'Brien at 6/15/2016

The West Perry School District has the privilege of educating the youth of our district. We strive to ensure that students are prepared for post-secondary careers. Some of our students chose to enter the workforce, join the military or attend two-year trade and technical schools, while others elect to pursue a four-year college degree. Public education funding has been, and will continue to be, a concern as we provide the resources needed to educate our students. The cost of educating children encompasses the responsibility to provide appropriate facilities and many services: bussing, mandated curriculum, food service, special education, gifted education, vocational education, elective courses and core courses and health services. The unfunded mandates (demands put on districts without any funding sources) and legislative changes have severely impacted the deficits that are impacting most districts across Pennsylvania. West Perry's pension costs have risen over 3 million dollars and cyber-charter school (school choice law) over 1.3 million dollars. These are just two of the factors that have caused the 3.1 million dollar budget deficit for 2016-2017. The current deficit was preceded by a 2.2 million dollar deficit for 2015-2016. Additionally, the state has not paid 600,000 dollars, owed to the district for PlanCon reimbursement. If the state defaults, the deficit for next year will rise to 3.7 million dollars.

The West Perry Board of Education and I spent over a hundred hours discussing options that would bring our expenses closer to expenditures. Understanding that the last two budgets resulted in a combined 5.3 million dollar deficit, (closer to 6 million without the PlanCon funds), we collectively agreed that it was time to investigate strategies that would reach some level of financial sustainability for the district. Legislators would like you to believe that school districts have excessive amounts of "hidden" money in fund balance. Our district currently has under 9 million in reserve, 22.8% of our yearly operating budget. Those accounts are critical to absorbing unexpected costs: 10-months without a state budget, facility repairs and upgrades, machinery, boilers, preventative maintenance, upkeep of fields, etc. In July 2015, our district submitted an application for PlanCon funds, from the state, to upgrade Carroll Elementary and West Perry High School. The cost for these upgrades could exceed 50 million dollars.

School districts are funded by three basic sources: local, state and federal. Pennsylvania consistently ranks near the bottom, compared to other states, in financial support for public education. Unfortunately, many political leaders feel that public education is adequate funded. The legislators and Governor Wolf delayed school funding (2015-2016) for almost 10 months and it appears likely that this year (2016-2017) will have similar issues, which will negatively impact public schools in the future. There is little faith that the state will fund public education to meet the needs of our students or pay for the mandates that they legislate.

The West Perry Board of Education was faced with two unacceptable choices: spending additional fund balance (approximately 50%) or reducing expenditures and raising taxes. Continuing to balance the budget through the use of fund balance would have quickly depleted those accounts by June 2018. Every member of the board supported reducing costs to get as close as possible to a balanced budget. The decision was followed by months of agonizing analysis of information and data points. The concepts of reducing staff (approximately 2 million dollars) and raising taxes were not easy decisions but they had to be made to avoid depleting fund balance, which could result in our district being classified as a financially distressed district. The reductions, passed by the Board on June 13, 2016, combined with increased taxes over the next several years will give our district a chance to reach financial sustainability by 2020-2021. The prediction of financial sustainability does not factor in any "unexpected" costs that the legislature will place upon public schools moving forward.

It is undeniable that this budget season has caused some concern within our community. There are differing opinions about what should or should not have been done. The past few months have been difficult and challenging, but our time, energy and resources must focus on the future. We must shift our collective efforts in preparing to welcome back 2466 students on August 29, 2016.