Enough with the Spreadsheet Debates

Governor Corbett’s Department of Education staff is still trying to argue that they increased funding to public schools this year by increasing the state’s contribution to pension payments. (These are mandatory payments, so we’re glad to see the state making them, but they also must be matched by school districts, resulting in fewer actual dollars available for education.) As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced in a headline yesterday, “Is the Corbett administration proposing education cuts or increases? Depends on which spreadsheet you study.” The new tactic appears to be: talk about pensions, spreadsheets, and accounting until people’s eyes glaze over and average citizens stop paying attention.

But school districts will tell you the bottom line is they are seeing funding cuts, not an increase. For instance, the administration claims the Sto-Rox school district will get an additional $356,000 next year under the proposed budget, though 94% of that will go to increased pension costs. However, Sto-Rox school superintendent Michael Panza explains that his district will actually lose another $138,000 next year because of the eliminated accountability block grant program.

And here’s some more fuzzy-accounting for you. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting today that, “School districts have access to their shares [of the accountability block grant program] this year, but because the money was appropriated the previous year, the administration argues it is not part of the current budget and cannot be considered a reduction.” Huh? Because the money was put into place last year and being used this year, we can’t consider it a cut when you get rid of it next year?

Not only that, Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education, threw out the scary sounding figure – $26 billion – saying taxpayers are already paying enough for education. “This isn’t that more money’s needed,” he said. “It’s that school districts and educational entities need to realize and recognize that we’re in an economy that has not improved yet, and they need to take the necessary actions to spend within their means.” In point of fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in spending on public education. And the PA legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states. (See “A New Mantra” for details.)

To suggest that school districts need to “spend within their means” is an insult, implying that they have been over-spending on frilly bells and whistles. Pennlive reports today, “Fannett Metal School District in Franklin County didn’t buy textbooks and expects to run out of copy paper before the year ends. Northgate School District in Allegheny County cut kindergarten. Allentown School District has one physical education teacher who rotates among three elementary schools.” Kindergarten, textbooks, and gym teachers are frills?

And what’s getting lost in this whole accounting debate is the fact that schools are still dealing with the $1 BILLION in cuts carried forward from last year. They’re not asking for more money, they are asking to have these devastating state budget cuts reversed. We citizens are asking to ditch the eye-glazing spreadsheet debates and get down to work on finding sustainable and equitable funding for public schools. As Michael Crossey, President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association says in the “Sounding the Alarm” report released today, “This is a manufactured crisis, but it doesn’t have to be this way. … Elected officials can take steps to solve this problem.” And it’s our job to make sure they do just that.

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