Schools are pillars of our community. When classes resume, we need to treat them that way | Opinion

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By Thomas J. Wilson

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted every aspect of our society, from healthcare to businesses to our homes. Together, we are experiencing a new appreciation for a pre-pandemic life and for the many things we took for granted.

With the unprecedented shutdown of Pennsylvania’s school facilities has come a realization that Pennsylvania’s public schools are critical pillars of their community.

The fact is that 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s students are enrolled in our traditional public schools. Public education is a vital component of our workforce pipeline. The pandemic has shown that schools are not only critical for the education they provide, but also for the food security, stability, special education and mental health resources our families find within the physical walls of their school buildings.

Our educators, staff and administration are doing yeoman’s work rewriting curriculum and working with parents who, themselves, are often juggling a full-time job from home while facilitating their children’s learning.

Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Legislature took action to allow school districts to continue paying staff, gave districts flexibility for learning instruction, and ensured that public schools could continue to provide continuity of learning to students. School board members, such as myself, are grateful for their efforts.

It’s a great start but it will not be enough. With local tax revenues predicted to drop precipitously, school districts across the state are facing a shortfall of about $1 billion this year. Recent federal education stimulus will only fill a portion of this gaping hole.

As lawmakers pass legislation for Pennsylvania’s recovery from the COVID crisis, we urge them to:

  • Protect the quality of education for every student
  • Ensure that there are no cuts to the state funding for schools
  • Urge Washington to provide additional emergency funding, if necessary, to make sure our students do not fall behind.

Federal and state funding, as well as the flexibility for school districts to respond to the needs of their community in controlling their own property tax rates that fund the majority of school districts’ expenditures, are critical to ensure that Pennsylvania’s school children do not lose further educational opportunities beyond what COVID-19 has already stolen from them.

All students must have the opportunity for a quality K-12 education, regardless of their zip code, where these foundational skills can mature. Students should have access to smaller classes, when possible, to ensure more individualized instruction, access to diverse academic offerings including STEM and Career and Technical Education, and access to critical lab, computer and other equipment that is so pervasive in our modern workforce.

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We should not forget that many of the heroes confronting this pandemic, from the doctors and nurses to the researchers to the first responders and so many more, are the products of our public education system. We must focus on making sure this next generation stays on track.

Frankly, we don’t know exactly what the next academic year will bring. In Upper Adams School District, we anticipate a drop in local revenues of as much as $1 million (about 6 percent), based on a Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials study.

State revenue figures have not been updated since February but there is palpable concern they will also drastically fall. Additionally, costs may increase to meet potential pandemic-associated requirements related to social distancing in classrooms and buses as well as costs for near constant sanitation of buildings, etc. The uncertainty of state funding coupled with the potential of a freeze on property taxes make budget submissions more of a guess than a plan.

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If state public school funding is cut – and if local districts’ authority to control their own property taxes judiciously with their communities’ needs in mind is revoked by the General Assembly – our public schools will absolutely be decimated.

Pennsylvania school boards need two things: adequate funding from the Legislature for all Pennsylvania school districts, and the ability to budget local funds appropriately for their districts.

Rear Adm. Thomas J. Wilson, III, United States Navy (Ret), is the president of the Upper Adams School District Board of Directors in Adams County. He writes from Biglerville, Pa.