HARRISBURG - As the state prepares for what could be another tumultuous budget season, at least 60 percent of Pennsylvania school districts plan to raise property taxes and nearly a third expect to cut staff, according to a survey of districts across the commonwealth.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials released the results of its survey Monday. It came as lawmakers and Gov. Wolf opened a month in which they will strive to avoid the battle that led to last year's historic stalemate, one that forced some districts to borrow tens of millions of dollars to stay open.
More than two-thirds - or 355 of the state's 500 school districts - responded to the survey, including Philadelphia, the associations said. Among respondents, 85 percent reported plans to increase property taxes, 46 percent said they would reduce staff and 34 percent said they would increase class size.
As the next state budget deadline looms on July 1, districts expect to see $600 million in new costs related to pensions, health care, special education and charter schools, officials said. At the same time, they are waiting for state reimbursement for school construction and renovation.
"All of these factors shift the tax burden to the local level," said Jay D. Himes, executive director of the school business officials association, during a news conference to discuss the report. "The cumulative effect of the past five budget years has led to the highest number of districts planning to raise property taxes since we initiated our annual budget reports in 2010."
Jim Buckheit, executive director of the school administrators association, said the groups are asking for additional state funding and for relief from state requirements of local districts. "We need both parts of the puzzle to be fixed," he said.
Wolf has advocated for a big boost in school funding, and wants to pay for it with new or increased taxes. The Republicans who control the House and Senate oppose new taxes and say the state needs to cut costs and find new funding streams.
Both sides pointed to aspects of the report to bolster their positions.
"I think that report showed the situation many schools in the commonwealth are facing is as bad as we have said it is," said Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for Wolf. "The governor is committed to working with the legislature to try to reach agreement on a '16-'17 budget that includes more funding for education and also addresses some of the issues they're talking about, like pension reform and charter reform."
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) has been a leading proponent of changing the pension systems for state and public school workers to shift investment risk away from taxpayers, a policy demand Republicans emphasized in last year's negotiations. His spokeswoman, Jennifer Kocher, noted that the report cites pensions as a growing cost for school districts.
"Schools have a leaking bucket," Kocher said. "That leak needs to be plugged before we start and continue to add more and more money. ... Why not plug the leak first, and fix the pension problems?"
Kocher and Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said their members want to see the enactment of a proposal, vetoed in May by Wolf, that would limit the role of seniority in teacher layoffs. The bill would let districts base those decisions on teacher performance ratings, while also allowing layoffs for economic reasons.
"I would not expect any major increase in funding without some quality control," Miskin said.