Facing staff shortages, rising costs, Pa. schools at ‘critical juncture’ | Thursday Morning Coffee

Mandated costs have grown by $6.5B, while state support has grown by only $2.8B, according to a new report

February 3, 2022 7:08 am
Teacher and students in a classroom.

(Getty Images)

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts are at a ‘critical juncture,’ as they head into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and need ‘predictable, consistent, and sustainable’ funding from the state as they spend down federal pandemic relief money.

That’s the bottom line of the latest iteration of an annual budget report released earlier this week by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

The two professional organizations surveyed scores of senior school officials across the state, including superintendents and chief financial officers to sketch both the broad outlines of the fiscal pressures facing school district leaders, as well as more micro challenges as hiring and retaining new staff in a competitive labor market.

“School districts find themselves navigating a new normal as they work through the lasting effects of the pandemic to address student needs all the while battling increases in mandated costs, massive statewide educational labor shortages, significant supply chain issues, and stringent requirements associated with [Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief] funding,” the report’s authors wrote.

The latter is a reference to the $7 billion in pandemic relief funding that school districts received between March 2020 and March 2021. According to the report, most districts have spent the money on new technology and to address learning loss during the pandemic.

School officials also spent the relief money on helping low-income students, English-language learners, and children with disabilities during the pandemic, the report’s authors note.

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School leaders pointed to a mix of short- and long-term concerns in the new budget report.

Those near-term concerns include staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and rising costs for school supplies and food to feed students, all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Long-term concerns include longstanding gripes about the way the commonwealth pays for charter schools, worries about rising special education costs, and overall state support for public education.

“Many familiar with Pennsylvania public schools remember the huge fiscal problems that were faced following the Great Recession of 2008,” the report’s authors write.

That year, federal stimulus money was used to backstop school district budgets. And when that money went away, districts found themselves facing a “significant reduction in funding of public education.”

Flash-forward a decade-and-a-half later, and those same concerns remain, a PASBO official said.

“Over the last 10 years [mandated costs] have grown by $6.5 billion, while state funding has only grown 2.8 billion,” Dr. Andrew L. ArmagostPASBO’s director of advocacy and analytics, told our partners at City & State Pa. “The issue of funding keeps coming back because we don’t address either the mandate side or the funding side, and so even though we do have historic levels of education funding, we have historic levels of mandated costs.”

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Capitol news conference on Wednesday, 6/23/21 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

Legislative Democrats hope to address many of those funding concerns with a $3.75 billion spending blueprint they rolled out on Monday.

The plan, which came a week ahead of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s final budget address, would tap a mix of existing state resources and unspent stimulus funding to pay for education, staffing recruitment and retention, and classroom resources, the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported.

“This historic moment responds to a historic problem that has been existing in Pennsylvania for generations,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said during a virtual news conference.

Last year’s budget appropriated $300 million for education, including $200 million for the Fair Funding Formula and $100 million for Level Up, a funding program that prioritizes Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts, Parish reported.

The new budget report makes a number of recommendations to help school districts shore up their bottom lines.

They include:

  • “[Strengthening and expanding] funding support and/or relief in a predictable and sustainable way to schools experiencing accelerated growth in mandated costs for special education, charter school tuition, and pensions. These costs are putting tremendous burdens on local tax payers and are impacting local student educational opportunities;
  • “[Ensuring’ that schools that are investing in successful federal ESSER programs can sustain these programs well beyond the current statutory deadline;
  • “[Assisting] schools in overcoming the severe supply chain, labor, and fiscal challenges so they can more effectively provide pupil transportation, food service, technology requirements, infrastructure updates, and student support, and
  • “[Ensuring] that school funding is predictable, consistent, and sustainable as districts unwind ESSER funding and begin to plan budgetary needs over the next three years,” the report’s authors wrote.

During a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Tuesday, educators and union officials said the current staffing shortage and supply chain issues facing districts was “not sustainable,” and called for legislative relief, Parish reported.

Adam McCormick, a teacher in the Scranton School District, told lawmakers that “under normal circumstances,” he would have taken a professional day to appear before lawmakers. Instead, he asked school administrators to coordinate a schedule, so he could still teach on Tuesday and not “tax the already tight schedules of my colleagues and students,” Parish reported.

School districts, meanwhile, having learned hard lessons during the Great Recession, don’t want to make the same mistake twice when it comes to the federal relief funds, the report’s authors wrote.

But they’ll need help to do that.

“Districts are well aware that these are one-time funds. They are also keenly aware that rapidly escalating costs, addressing COVID costs, and other operating costs that didn’t exist previously are not going to subside just because the funding drops off in September 2024,” they observed.

“To avoid massive reductions in staffing and programs that followed the Great Recession of 2008, the state must continue to steadily increase funding for and investment in public education,” they concluded.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
In an age of social media and online fundraising, candidate endorsements from the state party machinery matter less and lessStephen Caruso explains what happened.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is taking over the state’s congressional redistricting fight, Stephen Caruso also reports.

Calling on the Republican-controlled General Assembly to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has unveiled a $1.7 billion spending blueprint to help Pennsylvania businesses, workers, and families. Marley Parish has the story.

A bipartisan coalition made up of leaders from around the nation held a panel discussion on Wednesday, taking on accountability in the 2022 political cycle and the challenge of tracking election deniersMarley Parish also reports

In Pittsburgh, abortion rights advocates and abortion providers are urging vigilance and engagement as Republican state lawmakers launch yet another attack on abortion access in the state, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

Adara Combs, whose family has been touched by Philadelphia’s scourge of gun violence, has been named the city’s first victim advocate, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

En la Estrella-CapitalEl Departamento de Salud agrega centros regionales de atención a largo plazo a las iniciativas de apoyo hospitalario al COVID-19. Y la Corte Suprema de Pa. echa un segundo vistazo al caso del mapa del congreso; las órdenes permanecen en el tribunal inferior.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a Baylor University scholar explains how 18th Century Quakers led a sugar boycott to protest slavery. And bipartisanship failed to expand voting rights — U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and her backers ignore that, Jim Small, of our sibling site, The Arizona Mirror, writes.

A state liquor store front in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison).

In a pro-con, the Inquirer considers whether it’s time for Pennsylvania to get out of the state-run booze business.

Pittsburgh City Council is giving the thumbs-down, for now, to the annexation of neighboring Wilkinsburg, the Post-Gazette reports.

Legalize it? Well, hold a hearing on it, anyway. PennLive has the details on the legislative progress on legalizing recreational marijuana.

Lancaster County Commissioners released few details before closing on a $3 million land deal for a new prison, LancasterOnline reports.

A municipal tax collector in York County is headed to trial in two criminal cases, the York Daily Record reports.

St. Luke’s Health Network will no longer provide guidance to the Southern Lehigh Schools because of the district’s ‘disrespect,’ the Morning Call reports.

Four people are dead after a ‘massive’ house fire in a Luzerne County community, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

COVID-19 cases are continuing to drop in Philadelphia, but the city isn’t ‘out of the woods yet,’ WHYY-FM reports.

You can add school superintendents in Pennsylvania and nationwide to the list of people joining the Great ResignationWPSU-FM reports (via WITF-FM).

GoErie takes a look at the toll that unfounded threats are taking on the Erie schools.

In Washington County, the ‘Banned Book Club’ is reading books the local schools won’t teach, the Observer-Reporter reports.

President Joe Biden is headed to New York City today to talk about gun violence. Roll Call has the details.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:


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What Goes On
The Wolf administration holds a 10 a.m. event at Harrisburg University to remind students to submit their FAFSA applications.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
5:30 p.m: Reception for Rep. Brandon Markosek, D-Allegheny. Admission runs $500 to $5,000.

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out to PennLive’s Ivey DeJesus, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s one from Public Service Broadcasting and EERA that sounds like fine advice any day, but most especially on this penultimate day of the working week. It’s ‘People, Let’s Dance.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Despite blowing an early, three-goal lead, the Edmonton Oilers nonetheless rallied late to top the Washington Capitals 5-3 on Wednesday. New Oiler Evander Kane contributed a goal, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored twice in the third period to seal the win.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.