COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates funding, inequality concerns among Pa. schools

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For some Pennsylvania schools, the coronavirus means property tax increases.

For others, it means cutting programs or slowing expansion. 

And in still other districts, it means merging or closing schools outright. 

That’s been the quiet reality on the ground as schools across Pennsylvania deal with a pandemic that has created revenue shortfalls, budget gaps, increased cleaning and technology costs and unknowns for the fall — and beyond.

After the state stop-gap budget, which keeps school spending at last year’s levels, passed in May, the financial picture for school districts began to crystallize.

“Virtually every district in the state has had to make some combination of tax increases, budget cuts, and draw-downs of reserves,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, the K-12 policy director at the Public Citizens for Children and Youth advocacy group in Philadelphia.

She noted that “flat funding” from the state ends up being more like a cut when rising costs in health care, pensions and special education are factored in.

Joseph Roy, the superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, the sixth largest in the state, said receiving $3.1 million in federal CARES Act funding allowed the district to balance its budget and not increase taxes. He said the fact that the district is primarily funded by property taxes is important, since it “doesn’t swing wildly.”

But over time, Roy said, if the economy fails to rebound quickly, the values and appraisals of properties throughout the district will go down or won’t grow as fast. And he expects the earned income tax that the city and district split will go down, too, with more potentially delinquent taxpayers because of pandemic-related unemployment. 

We anticipate the next two years to be even more of a challenge than this year,” Roy said. 

Bethlehem has been able to hire 32 teachers to fill positions left vacant by retirees, which Roy said are about the same number as usual. He expects to fill 15 more over the summer.

The decisions are particularly tough since the vast majority of expenses in public education are personnel costs for teachers and staff, making it hard to meaningfully cut costs without cutting people.

“We haven’t said, ‘That person retired, we aren’t filling it,’” Roy said. “Some districts are doing it.”

But plans to expand a “highly successful literacy initiative” from the elementary level into grades six through 10 were “put off completely,” he said. The school district also had to cut the social workers it had planned to hire as part of a broader focus on increasing social service support. 

In other towns, the choice was more cut and dry: raise taxes or cut staff.

The Palmyra Area School District raised property taxes 1.84 percent by a 5-4 vote at its June 25 meeting. The compromise was the culmination of a weeks-long process, which began with a proposed 3.3 percent tax increase — the most the state allows in a single year.

The less drastic cuts include not filling positions for an elementary school music teacher and a half-time high school English teacher, and eliminating a supervisor of technology position. In April, without a tax increase, the school board had projected much more robust cost-saving measures, including the elimination of nine teaching positions, a school police officer position and an outdoor science program. 

The district said in April a 1 percent increase would cost the average Palmyra home an additional $32 while raising an additional $300,000 in revenue.

Still, not everyone was on board with the final outcome. 

“Especially this year, with many landlords not getting their rent, I don’t know how they’re going to pay their increase in taxes, even though it might be minimal,” said Dawn Blauch, a Palmyra resident. “Businesses not being able to make the incomes that they normally make. Lost jobs with residents … I just think it’s a very tough year to be raising taxes at all. And we raise taxes year after year after year after year. Recently I had a conversation with a resident who says he gets a small raise every year, and he’s like, ‘Every year that small raise pretty much goes right to the school district.’ He never really sees his raise, and that just really stuck with me.”

Other residents opposing the tax increase said the town is driving away residents on fixed income, namely senior citizens and those with disabilities. 

One resident, Casey Long, took matters into his own hands to try to avoid a tax increase. He started a fundraiser for the school district. Ultimately, the board narrowly voted to abide by its policy not to accept the funds, as the fundraiser was not pre-approved by the school district. The board voted 4-4, with one abstention to turn down the nearly $2,000 raised.

But many spoke in support of the compromised budget. Palmyra resident Jason Kwiatkowski, who responded to concerns raised at a previous board meeting over those on fixed income or who are otherwise struggling.

“What was most peculiar was that at no point was it discussed how reducing resources in our schools was the best for the students or teachers,” he said. “If the interpretation of fiscal responsibility is simply to save a few dollars now in exchange for a significantly increased tax burden in the future, running the risk of reducing home values, which is the single greatest source of the average Americans’ net worth, and jeopardize years of previous investments made in our schools, then stay the course. But additionally, I would remind you all that you ran on the platform of putting our kids’ education first.”

Though not nearly as dependent on tax dollars as public schools, the impact of COVID-19  has reached private schools, too. 

Michelle Peduto, the director of Catholic Schools at the Pittsburgh Diocese, said it has closed eight of its 40 elementary schools and one high school. 

Yet, she said the Pittsburgh Diocese schools are committed to educating “the whole child” and are not considering programming cuts in areas like sports, music, art and physical education. She said the school closures are part of strategic thinking for the future.

Peduto said some of the closed schools had enrollment “well below 100,” leaving her with “no choice financially” since they were “operating at such a deficit.” She acknowledged that enrollment has been “decreasing across the board” as the schools have faced growing challenges, including a recent Catholic Diocese grand jury report. 

“This pandemic added just another layer to an already complex situation,” Peduto said.

With enrollment already trending down and tuition staying flat, the Pittsburgh Diocese can’t provide more financial aid to families who might want to stay in the schools but be unable to afford to because of the challenges they also are facing from the pandemic.

Affordability is playing out as a specific concern during this health crisis. Sippio-Smith said the state’s education budget “fails to address Pennsylvania’s ongoing catastrophe of having the widest funding disparity between wealthy and poorer school districts in the country.”

Sippio-Smith pointed to York City as one district severely impacted by budget concerns. She said the district already has the highest tax rate of any district in the state, and it was forced to raise taxes for the first time since 2012. The district made $2.5 million cuts once the state’s announced it wasn’t going to increase school funding.

According to Sippio-Smith, 49 percent of York’s students are Hispanic and 32 percent are Black. 

“York City’s case illustrates a broader rule of state funding — when it is cut, or in this case not increased, the districts that suffer the most are those with the highest poverty rates and students with the greatest needs,” she said. 

Back in Bethlehem, Roy said the pandemic is hurting people with low paying or unstable jobs in the Bethlehem district. He said the district has been paying attention to them by working with community partners to provide mental health services and by providing close to 150,000 meals to people since March.

Yet he’s concerned about children living in unstable family conditions, and said the district is forming a plan for how to assess those needs when the children return to school. 

“We know locally, this pandemic just puts the spotlight on inequities,” Roy said.