The Fiction of Flexibility

When Governor Corbett proposed collapsing several educational budget items into the Basic Education Funding line, he championed it as a move towards “greater flexibility” for schools. But school districts here in Yinzer Nation are finding that flexibility is fiction: a nice story, but in the end, just that.

According to Corbett’s flexibility story, districts would no longer have to spend, say, their state allocations for salaries or transportation on those things; if they found a way to save money on teachers or school buses, under the proposed system, they could spend that money elsewhere. Flexibility sounds good. Who doesn’t like flexibility? School officials in West Mifflin, Sto-Rox, Penn Hills, McKeesport, and the North Hills all spoke with the Post-Gazette this week to explain the problem.

As the Post-Gazette reports today, “district officials said it’s nearly impossible for them to reduce salary and transportation costs as most salaries in the district are dictated by contractual agreements, and transportation costs continue to increase, in many cases, because more students are choosing to attend charter schools and their home districts are required to transport them to distances up to 10 miles.”

The West Mifflin school district has already made huge cuts to its transportation system, and can’t imagine where it’s supposed to find additional savings. A new charter school in Penn Hills has increased transportation costs for that school district and also nearly doubled its charter school tuition payments, from $4.2 to $8 million. Penn Hills, McKeesport, and Sto-Rox all stand to lose their funding for full-day Kindergarten programs with Corbett’s elimination of accountability block grants. “Flexibility” isn’t going to pay for any of these things: school districts can’t rob Peter to pay Paul because they’re both broke.

What’s worse, the Post-Gazette reports that business managers in these school districts “fear the reason Mr. Corbett lumped much of the school funding … is to eliminate the formulas previously used to fund items such as transportation and Social Security subsidies.” David Hall, director of finance for the North Hills School District, explained, “Right now, both the [Social Security] and transportation subsidy are formula driven and when they are increased, the state automatically increased their subsidy to match. By putting it into a block grant, I’m guessing there won’t be any increases in the future. It will no longer be formula based,” Mr. Hall said.

In other words, where school districts used to be able to count on formula-based increases for things like transportation costs, now they can expect no increases at all, even as costs continue to rise. This isn’t flexibility – it’s a fairytale.

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