Wolfe: Cuts would put all-day kindergarten in jeopardy

PUNXSUTAWNEY — After learning about proposed budget cuts to school districts presented by Gov. Tom Corbett this week, Punxsutawney Area School District Superintendent Dr. Keith Wolfe said Friday that Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget cuts to school districts may have placed all-day kindergarten in jeopardy.

Wolfe said he had just returned from a superintendents’ meeting at Riverview Intermediate Unit (IU) No. 6 in Clarion, and the amount of concern was astronomical.

Wolfe said he knows of districts — not from IU No. 6, but from across the state — that are talking about cutting kindergarten to half-time, along with extra-curricular and athletic programs, or cutting kindergarten altogether.

“Kindergarten is not mandatory in Pennsylvania, so there are school districts that are looking to eliminate kindergarten all together, period, and starting students in the first grade,” he said. “That’s something that I would not want to do.”

In his budget address Tuesday, Corbett proposed cutting about $550 million, or 10 percent, in funds for instruction in K-12 public schools, and eliminating all $260 million in grants that was expected to be distributed this year to school districts to invest in learning, including pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten and class-size reduction in kindergarten through third grade.

With the loss of state revenue — including the federal stimulus money — the Punxsy district is looking at a loss of at least $2 million, Wolfe said.

“We’re going to sharpen our pencil and make sure that we’re being as prudent as we can with our local tax dollars,” he said. “Unfortunately, the governor wants to make these cuts. What it’s really doing is putting the burden back on the local school board, district and taxpayer.”

Wolfe said that about seven years ago, the accountability block grant came through, and the district hoped that it could be used for funding for three years or longer.

Many school districts — including Punxsy — used that money to implement full-day kindergarten, rather than half-day kindergarten, Wolfe said. The Punxsy district also used grant funds to hire tutors for the middle school and high school.

Wolfe said he was expecting to receive $500,000 from the grant for next year, which has now been cut back to zero. That’s why some districts are looking at cutting back on kindergarten for next year.

He said he is still in the process of receiving budgets from the various departments.

“I’m going to have to figure out where I’m going to come up with this money,” Wolfe said, adding that the administration will have to cut back on something.

Wolfe said that when $2 million of subsidy is removed from the budget, cuts will have to come from some place.

Other possible areas for cuts under examination by other districts include not replacing staff members, teachers or secretaries through attrition, and cutting some programs which would eliminate some faculty positions.

Elementary-level cuts discussed at Friday’s IU meeting were art, physical education and music, which are not required for elementary students.

“Districts are out there trying to find money anywhere they can. Some of them are going to be short $8 million,” Wolfe said.

He said he had a conversation with a superintendent from the middle part of Pennsylvania who said he was considering closing five school buildings, which would furlough about 80 to 90 teachers.

Wolfe said prior to coming to Punxsy as the new superintendent last summer, there were already staff cuts made in the Punxsy district.

“I’m looking at a lot of numbers, as many school districts are exploring the idea of larger class sizes,” Wolfe said, adding that some districts are trying to push through HB 855 and SB 612, which would amend the state school code and allow districts to furlough teachers for budgetary reasons, not just because a program is being cut.

“I’m not saying that I’m going to do that; I’m just saying that’s one of the things that the state is doing to try and help school districts, if you want to call it that,” he said. “It may help us financially, but is it really going to help our students?”

Another idea from a superintendent at the IU meeting is to have all state employees — not just teachers — take a pay freeze for one year and possibly avoid cuts, Wolfe said.

“I don’t know where we are going at this point,” he said.

The Punxsutawney Area School Board is in the process of negotiating a new contract with the Punxsutawney Area Education Association. Its contract expires June 30.

Wolfe said there will be more discussion regarding budget cuts at Monday’s school board meeting.