Franklin County schools vent on inequity in state funding

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot
Participating in the Community Conversation about Public School Funding Thursday in Chambersburg were the Franklin County superintendents and others. Pictured from left: Dr. Joe Bard, executive director of the PA Association of Rural and Small Schools; Dr. Joe Padasak, Chambersburg; Jim Duffey, Fannett-Metal; Dr. Greg Hoover, Greencastle-Antrim; Beth Bender, Shippensburg; Dr. Charles Prijatelj, Tuscarora; Dr. Sherian Diller, Waynesboro; and Susan Spicka, moderator on behalf of Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

A "community conversation" on public school funding in Pennsylvania, especially as it affected Franklin County schools, drew 100 people to First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chambersburg on Thursday. Panelists included school superintendents Greg Hoover from Greencastle, Joe Padasak from Chambersburg, Jim Duffey from Fannett-Metal, Beth Bender from Shippensburg, Charles Prijatelj from Tuscarora, Sherian Diller from Waynesboro, and executive director of Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools Joe Bard.

The event was hosted by Susan Spicka, a co-founder of Campaign for Fair Education Funding. The year-old organization had about 50 agency members representing business, industry, educational advocacy groups, unions, chambers of commerce, churches, non-profits and legal centers.

"We're here tonight to give our state lawmakers a chance to learn about how the state funding system is impacting school districts, and to connect voters with them," Spicka said.

Rep. Paul Schemel, 90th District, and Sen. John Eichelberger Jr., 30th District, both representing Greencastle, were in the crowd. They listened to the stories of distress reported by each superintendent, but it was not anything they had not heard before.

Bard said Pennsylvania's funding of education was a failure, because it relied on local tax dollars to support the school systems.

"This is not a partisan issue," he said, since financial support had gone down under both Republican and Democratic leadership. He advocated uniformity in local taxing efforts across the state.

Padasak said the state funding structure meant Chambersburg had a $4 million shortfall in the budget every year. He needed 25 more teachers, two schools and 11 buses.

Duffey said Fannett-Metal had closed the music program at the secondary level and was struggling to educate students in aging buildings they could not afford to upgrade. Funding on state-mandated programs, specifically in special education, retirement and cyber/charter school tuition, had not kept up with the real expenses.

Hoover shared portions of the Hold Harmless presentation he has given to the school board and community organizations for the past year. State funding was based on 1989 enrollment, but G-ASD had grown, and extra money had not followed.

Bender said Shippensburg "was hanging on by our fingernails." Their greatest resource was people and their product was people.

At Tuscarora, 25 positions were eliminated in the past three years, and taxes would go up for the third year in a row with the pending budget. "All we've done is survive. The quality of education has gone down," Prijatelj said.

Finally, Diller said state funding, which was unpredictable every year, had forced Waynesboro to cut employees to part-time or to contracted positions.

Spicka said, from her connections at educational meetings in Harrisburg, "There is a strong commitment to find a fix to this problem. It's the first glimmer of hope we've seen."

Politicians react

Eichelberger said he did not learn anything new from the presentations. He also said there was another side to the story.

"Some of the comments were not accurate," he said. "I understand their perspective, but we (the state) can't continue to fund as we have."

Certain school districts in Pennsylvania, though not in Franklin County, had multi-millions of dollars in reserve. In addition, districts did not want to give up local control, should that create a more equitable funding formula.

"The state could take control, similar to what it is like a few miles south of here, rather than have 500 school districts," Eichelberger said. Maryland operates in a county system. "There is a lot of push to consolidate. We need to look at that."

In addition, Pennsylvania ranked seventh in the nation in what it spent per student.

"People aren't hearing that."

Part of the solution could start at the local level, he hinted.

"Schools get 52 percent reimbursement on PSERS (public employee retirement system contributions) and counties get almost nothing. We have no control on what schools are paying their teachers but they come to us and want their money back."

Eichelberger said across all of Pennsylvania over the past 10 years, school hiring went up but enrollment dropped. On top of that, school boards wanted to hang on to property taxes as a stable form of revenue. In the eastern portion of the state, though, there was strong support to eliminate those taxes. He cited homeowners who were paying $25,000 a year in school taxes, "and these are not mansions."

"There needs to be more information fleshed out to the public," he concluded.

He recognized school funding was not fair and the issue needed to be fixed.

Schemel also did not learn anything new, but appreciated the opportunity to hear the perspective of each county school district.

"The meeting was good because it educates people about the problem. Some districts benefit from the system and won't want it to change. The pension crisis will be the blister that pops."

Schemel pointed out that growing school districts, like Greencastle, were subsidizing declining districts with their tax dollars, for students that no longer existed. That stemmed from the Hold Harmless law Hoover addressed.