School officials: Budget slashing in a class by itself

Reduced state and federal funding and rising pension and other mandated costs have led to unprecedented cuts in Pennsylvania school districts, according to an annual survey of school budgets.

The survey, by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said that for the fourth consecutive year, schools had been forced to make cuts inside and outside classrooms.

"The financial condition of school districts across the commonwealth continues to deteriorate . . . and create significant obstacles in maintaining the high-quality educational programs provided to students," said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the school administrators' group.

According to the survey, nearly 60 percent of school districts have furloughed staff since 2010-11, with classroom teachers accounting for more than 40 percent of those losing jobs. Additionally, seven in 10 districts have not filled vacant positions, and more than a quarter have instituted hiring freezes.

With about one in seven districts planning teacher furloughs next year, 64 percent reported increases in class sizes in the last four years.

The state has 500 districts and 1.8 million public school students.

Schools also anticipate eliminating or reducing 370 academic programs next year, in addition to 783 programs cut since 2010-11, the survey found. One-third of districts plan to eliminate or reduce extracurricular programs or charge fees.

Perkiomen Valley in Montgomery County is a prime example of the stresses facing school districts. With a budget gap of nearly $3 million, the school has proposed teacher and staff layoffs; cutting drivers' education, some sports, and other programs; increasing class sizes; and raising taxes.

Buckheit said the local share of the cost of educating students rose from 37 percent in 2010-11 to 45 percent this year. Even with the continued cuts in staff and academic programs, additional local revenue will be needed to balance budgets. More than 75 percent of survey respondents said districts planned property-tax increases next year, the highest percentage in five years.

Fifty-six percent of school districts in the state responded to the survey. It was conducted between April 14 and May 12 by Research for Action, a Philadelphia independent research firm that focuses on education.