PASD officials navigating budget crunch

PUNXSUTAWNEY — When Gov. Tom Corbett said last year he was going to make some major cuts in the amount of funding that school districts received, he wasn't bluffing.

Public schools, which had to absorb about $860 million in spending cuts for the 2011-12 school year, will see their basic subsidies rise about $45 million to $5.4 billion, but could lose $100 million in grants that helped fund full-day kindergarten and other programs, such as dual enrollment.

"I was worried last year and somewhat naive about how much funding was going to be cut by the state for this school year," said Dr. Keith Wolfe, Punxsutawney Area School District superintendent.

Wolfe said he was afraid the loss of the accountability block grant educational Assistance Program (EAP) would put a serious dent in all-day kindergarten.

"However, the EAP did come back, and we were able to fund all-day kindergarten for another year." Wolfe said, adding that he's a believer in all-day kindergarten.

He said expectations are high for kindergarten students.

"Kindergarten students now have higher expectations than years ago and are not able to complete all of their work in half a day," Wolfe said.

Susan H. Robertson, district business manager, said the entire staff pitched in to help save money in its departments this past year and for next year, too.

"We've kept an open dialogue with our department heads," she said. "We also requested more information regarding budgets for athletics and technology."

Robertson said the district has yet to use its fund balance.

The school board has passed a resolution to not use it, she said.
Wolfe said during the 2009-10 school year, the district received $1,847,000 in state funding.

In 2010-11, it was $1,073,000, and for 2011-12 it was $1,706,000, he said.

"It's supposed to remain the same for next year, so the state funding has dropped and has now leveled off," Wolfe said, adding that the Student Achievement Education Block Grant has seen an increase of $22 million from the governor's budget.

However, there's no money at all for the accountability block grant or for dual enrollment, he said.

Wolfe said there were a few dozen students who participated in the dual enrollment program when it was mostly paid for with grant funds. Under the program, a student attends high school classes in the morning and college classes in the afternoon at one of the area colleges.

Because of the grant money being eliminated, Wolfe said the number of students who participated in dual enrollment is down to just three or four.

One of the biggest budget issues the district faces is the funding for students who attend charter or cyber schools, Wolfe said.

He said state law requires public schools to pay 80 percent of their per-pupil costs as tuition for students registered in their districts and enrolled in online charter schools.

"Cyber or charter schools can charge whatever they want for tuition, and the district has to pay for it," he said. "The legislature is discussing the possibility for a formula of $18,000 to $20,000 per student.

"Cyber schools don't have the expenses that the school district does, since they don't have buildings or transportation expenses, and (they have) fewer employees," Wolfe said. "I'm not opposed to cyber schools. Since our district has its own, I'd like to see students use ours and our curriculum."

Wolfe said many cyber schools take attendance just by a student logging onto the Web site.

"I think cyber schools should have compulsory attendance, where the student has accountability to the school," Wolfe said.

He said cyber school and home schooling are two completely different things.

"Home-schooled children never cost the district a penny, because the parents paid for the curriculum," Wolfe said. "Cyber schools cost the district anywhere from $8,000 to $18,000 per student."

This school year, the district is paying $675,000 for cyber school students, he said.

Robertson said the district has saved money by not replacing an employee when he or she retires.

"We try to eliminate that position when someone retires and have other employees double up and take over some of those duties," she said. "Our staff works hard; it's a team effort to save money wherever we can."
Wolfe said when it comes to the budget, a department head is asked if the request is a need or a want.

"If it's a want, the department head will take it off the table," he said.

There are a few areas where the district can save money: Cut staff; have larger classes, cut programs, cut extracurriculars, reduce elective courses or put off building improvements, Wolfe said.

But such cuts are not always best in the long run, he said.

"You have to explore every avenue, such as closing a building, or cut out some maintenance items — however, you still have to perform some maintenance, or the buildings will go into disrepair, and it will cost you even more money," he said. "No matter how you look at it, if there's no staff reduction, you're not saving any money."

Wolfe said one area the district has no control over is the unfunded mandates that come down from the state, such as all day kindergarten.
"No Child Left Behind is another area where we are required to meet our Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals through the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests," Wolfe said, adding that districts such as Punxsy, which makes AYP, are punished because the districts that don't make it receive more funding.

Robertson said funding may level off from the state, but expenses don't stay level.

"We are in the beginning stages of our budget meetings and cutting everything down to the bare bones," she said. "We also eliminated summer employees and hope to use our e-academy for summer school to save money by not having to hire as many summer school teachers and have one teacher take care of two classes at once."

Robertson said district tax payers need to fill out the Homestead Farmstead forms so they can become eligible for the reduction, which is due March 1.

The Homestead Act in Pennsylvania, more commonly referred to as the Homestead and Farmstead Exclusion (Act 50), reduces the property tax on permanent residences for individuals who reside in participating municipalities, Robertson said, adding that it is good for three years and is subsidized through the state's gaming money that comes into the district.

She said on average, the district received $1.1 million in gaming funds, which is returned to the tax payers in the form of property tax reductions if they choose to sign up for Homestead Farmstead.

Wolfe said he and Robertson have met with all of the departments concerning its budgets with the exception of technology.

Robertson said she will continue to present budget updates as the administration continues to work toward a preliminary budget, which is usually presented in May.

Wolfe said the district will continue to save money wherever it is able to.

This year's budget was approximately $38 million.