There is a chance Gettysburg Area School District could shut down at the end of June.
OK, not a big chance, but still – a chance. About which more in just a moment.
Monday night, the school board approved a revamped preliminary budget. A couple months ago, the preliminary 2011-2012 budget was nearly $2 million short. This week, it’s under what Gov. Corbett said it had to be cut to.
Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a state budget in March that cut this school district’s funding to the amount of state money it received in the 2004-2005 school year. Across the state, the governor proposed cutting school funding by about $1.5 billion – and a large chunk of what was left he proposed giving to private and charter schools in the name of competition and union busting.
In a keynote speech Monday to the American Federation for Children’s second annual national policy summit in Washington, D.C., Corbett said public schools spend too much time negotiating contracts and too little developing curriculum. He told the group that private and religious schools would offer a better value for taxpayers’ money.
On the surface, it would appear that Corbett was correct about schools making do with less money. All they have to do is get the teachers to accept a lower pay increase than their contract calls for, and dig into the fund balance.
The latter item is possibly most significant, since the fund balance is money not specifically spent in the budget. It is money that can be used when, for instance, a boiler decides to quit. This year, it will be used to help pay an increased Public School Employees Retirement System contribution, keep all-day kindergarten alive, and pay tuition to the district’s two charter schools, among other things. It will not be used to pay a few library secretaries, who until now have helped put books back on the shelves; those positions and others have been cut.
Politicians like to talk about not stealing the financial future from our grandchildren.
At a time when increasing numbers of our people are out of work, when the cost of getting to work is on the rise, and when far too many of our young men and women take their Senior Trip to exotic places such as Iraq and Afghanistan at least partly because there is nothing for them to do by staying home …
The political answer is to cut funding to the one thing that can prepare our youth for their future.
But the Gettysburg district could decide to take some of the local control about which school districts across the state often claim but rarely actually get to experience.
The budget GASB members passed Monday night in a 5-4 vote comes up for final approval June 20, and there is talk it may not receive the required blessing. Five of the nine members must vote in favor to adopt the budget. Some are unhappy at having to adopt a budget before knowing what the state budget will be, and how much money really will be available to the local districts.
“It’s like approving a loan before you know the terms,” school board member Keith Bruck said Monday night, before voting No on the motion to adopt the preliminary budget. If the district adopts the current preliminary budget, he said, “the state will continue to do as it has done for the last eight years.”
Thirty-four-year veteran board member Dale Biesecker agreed.“ I would vote No if I could get five votes on June 20 to not approve the budget,” Biesecker said. “I would be very much in favor of ‘on June 20 we don’t approve the budget’ and see what the state does.”
He said so far four board members have said they will vote No next month. One more No vote could make history, and possibly trigger a tsunami of rebellious boards across the state.
Failure to adopt a budget by midnight June 30 would be illegal. But the state is constitutionally required to adopt its budget by the same deadline – something the legislature has failed to make happen the past eight years in a row. A No vote would set up an intriguing test of local control vs. state bullying.
State driven school budgets are not new, or unique to Pennsylvania. I covered three school districts in another state for several years, and there were constant complaints about “unfunded mandates” – requirements placed by the state on the school district without the money to pay for them. State legislators get to make good on “no new taxes” pledges, and local schools get to pick up the tab. District boards and superintendents are placed in the unenviable position of blaming the state for being forced to raise local taxes.
But there’s another twist in Pennsylvania: Act 1 of 2006. That’s the state law that limits the amount a school district may raise taxes without permission from their residents, in the form of a referendum.
There is another risk to a No vote next month. School Board President Patt Symmes said if there is no budget, the state will not give the district any money at all.
“We lock our doors,” she said of a failed budget vote; the state would have no obligation to send any money to a budget-less district.
“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
At least it might force the General Assembly and the governor to adopt a state budget and tell schools how much money they will receive, rather than force districts to create a budget based on a political speech that merely threatens severe cuts.
Readers may contact John Messeder at john@JohnMesseder.com.
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