Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible

The Governor has added another new talking point. Now he is suggesting that we should blame school districts for cutting programs because they aren’t tapping their supposedly vast reserve accounts to pay for them. Speaking during his regular appearance on a Philadelphia radio program, Gov. Corbett criticized school districts because they “are making a concerted effort not to go into those reserves.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Actually, as Gov. Corbett well knows, over 70% of the state’s school districts are already spending down their reserves to balance their budgets this year. [Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, September 2011 study] Those reserve accounts are meant to be used for major planned construction projects or for emergencies such as a broken furnace. Not all districts have reserves, and those that do are certainly planning to use them for the massive spike in pension costs that are coming our way. (See why the state’s refusal to deal with the looming pension crisis is creating a recipe for disaster in “Pension History 101”.)

For example, last year when Pittsburgh Public Schools learned of the Governor’s nearly $1 BILLION in state cuts to education, it projected that it would deplete its reserves entirely by next year. The school board’s sound fiscal policy requires the district to maintain 5% of the current year’s budgeted operating expenses in reserve, but the district was already starting to run an operating deficit that would eat into those reserves. With the massive state cuts, Pittsburgh and other districts around the state were suddenly facing a dire situation: they would have to immediately cut programs, lay off teachers, and increase class sizes while continuing to eat into reserves and while knowing full well that the pension spike looms on the horizon. [Data from PPS presentation May 19, 2011.]

Yet here is the supposedly fiscally responsible governor telling school districts to essentially wipe out their savings accounts to pay for Kindergarten and other academic programs. As Jay Himes of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials points out, “To take the governor strictly on his own advice would be the same thing he criticized the school districts for doing with the federal stimulus funds. … This is one-time revenue. It shouldn’t be used haphazardly or without discipline.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Since February, Gov. Corbett has been telling everyone who will listen that he has actually increased state spending on education (funny, then, that districts everywhere face huge budget gaps and are cutting programs). This past week he added a new talking point, telling us that we should blame school districts for cutting arts education because they are the ones making that choice. (For more on the etymology of this talking point, see yesterday’s piece, “The Governor’s Rash.”) And now Corbett tells us that if districts with reserve accounts cut those programs, “that’s their decision to do that, because they have the money in reserve, but the parents don’t know that.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Wow. So now he not-so-subtly implies that school districts are trying to horde money and not tell parents about it? This is another tactic from the divide-and-conquer playbook and we will have none of it.

Right now school districts are making draconian cuts to essential but not legally required programs, like Kindergarten, because the state has left them with no alternative. Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, points to the abundance of research on the critical importance of early childhood education and says, “Most educators would rather get rid of high school before they got rid of kindergarten, but we’re mandated to have high school.”

While Corbett points his finger at local school board members, many of them are shaking their heads in disbelief at the empty bag the governor has left them holding. The Harrisburg school district announced yesterday that without state funding, they will eliminate Kindergarten, all athletics, and student transportation – and they will still have a $7-8 million budget gap next year. Harrisburg school board member Brendan Murray said, “This is absolutely insane, I never thought running for office we would have to say those [programs] are off the table.” [Penn Live, 5-16-12]

Insane is the right word for it. Irrational comes to mind. We can see through this new talking point, too, Governor Corbett. And it’s fiscally irresponsible.

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