Funding the 500: W. Pa. districts each look to Harrisburg to close school funding gulf

The West Jefferson Hill and Clairton City school districts share a border. That’s where the similarities end

By: - Wednesday June 21, 2023 9:01 am

Funding the 500: W. Pa. districts each look to Harrisburg to close school funding gulf

The West Jefferson Hill and Clairton City school districts share a border. That’s where the similarities end

By: - 9:01 am

Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

West Jefferson Hills and Clairton City school districts in Allegheny County share a geographical border, but a vast economic gulf stands between them.

The two districts, just moments from the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, are far apart on student poverty rates and how they can allocate resources to their students. 

It’s one striking example of the inequities in the state’s current school funding system that sees districts base the vast majority of their budgets on local property taxes. Even in neighboring districts, the divides can be stark. 

For example, Clairton City was one of 10 school districts in Allegheny County to receive Level Up funding for the 2022-23 school year, and data from the state Department of Education show that for the 2022-23 school year, 77.4% of students in the Clairton City district came from low-income families, while 25.2% did in the much larger — by nearly triple— West Jefferson Hills district. 

More than 93% of students at schools in Clairton City district are eligible for free or reduced price meal programs, at West Jefferson Hills that number is around 15%

And a 2020 report by former education nonprofit EdBuild titled “Fault Lines” found the two districts had the ninth-greatest divide between neighboring school districts in the country, in terms of economic disparities. 

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But with the February ruling by Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer finding that the state’s system for funding education was unconstitutional, districts such as  Clairton City, which regularly ranks among the state’s most underfunded, may see that gap closed, if not eliminated altogether. 

“There are many times in my short time at Clairton that I wanted a program, a highly qualified teacher, parent and community engagement events that were innovative,” Clairton City Superintendent Tamara Allen-Thomas told the Pittsburgh Union Progress not long after the ruling was announced. “I wanted updates to our building and uniforms for our extracurricular groups and sports teams. Additionally, I want to provide every student with the technology and art programs that will allow them to have well-rounded experiences.”

Despite what is being hailed generally as good news for lower-income districts, school district business managers are proceeding with caution, and are not planning on incorporating any new resources just yet, said Kate Krueger, director of advocacy for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO). 

“Initially when [the ruling] was announced and we summarized the decision for our members, there was some excitement there,” Krueger told the Capital-Star. “But I also think they’re realists, and know changes aren’t going to be seen in the finances of school districts for quite a bit of time. They want constant updates, but I think that they understand that this isn’t something that’s going to come to fruition right now.”

In her ruling, Cohn Jubilier detailed the labyrinthine processes school districts have to navigate to project their annual budgets, a process complicated by a Legislature that doesn’t always meet the June 30 budget deadline. 

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One example: When reporting their finances, districts have to follow Government Accounting Standards Board rules, which means districts have to list in their annual financial reports “funds and fund balances that are on their balance sheets as a matter of GASB rules, but which are not actually available for the education of school districts,” the judge’s decision states.

“The budget process is extremely difficult for our members, and not only because they have to pass their own budgets for their school district prior to the state budget being passed on June 30, or sometimes after June 30,” Krueger said. 

“Every school district is struggling, just in different ways,” Krueger added. “And although more money gets allocated to the basic education funding formula and other other areas every year, the costs are outpacing what they’re receiving.”

But, she said, PASBO and its members – which include officials responsible for budgeting and financing, school facilities, and a range of other business functions, are generally “very optimistic” about the prospect of meaningful changes in school funding as a result of the judge’s ruling.

 “I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of urgency and bipartisanship to get something done in a long time,” Krueger said. “I think what makes it really difficult for our legislature and for others, other stakeholders in the conversation to make sure that all of our school districts are receiving the funding they need. And all of them need it in different places.”

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly