PSBA Comments on Rendell Budget

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association today commended Gov. Edward Rendell on the proposed $300 million increase for public education. The increase comes despite the size of the state’s budget deficit, deep cuts in other areas of the budget and decreases in education spending in other states.

“We had been anticipating the appropriation levels identified by the governor in his six-year funding plan laid out in 2008; however, we realize the dire financial straits facing state government,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, PSBA’s executive director. “In light of that, the addition of $300 million to the basic subsidy is particularly commendable since it will help to close the adequacy gaps for the commonwealth’s school districts and contain pressure on school property taxes. It is our sincere hope we can return to the governor’s original funding schedule as soon as practical.”

Last year, Rendell laid out a six-year plan to fully fund the adequacy gaps that were identified in the state’s costing-out study that examined the needs and current spending levels of school districts. That plan resulted in a $360 million increase in education funding for the current year and would have increased that to $418 million in 2009-10.

The association remains concerned with the lack of growth in the special education funding line item. “Increases in costs for special education services continue to impact school district budgets,” said Gentzel. “Every time the state fails to increase this line item, school districts have to raise property taxes, cut other programs or reduce nonprofessional staff, all decisions that no school board wants to make.” Gentzel noted that other line items that had received significant increases would have less of an immediate impact on school district budgets.

Rendell also called for the formation of a legislative commission to study the issue of school consolidation and report back with recommendation in one year. The governor added that consolidation can generate a major new source of funding that would benefit students and taxpayers across the state.

Gentzel noted there is no evidence that forced consolidation of school districts would save money or improve student achievement. “Larger school districts mean larger bureaucracies,” he said. “We have serious concerns about such an approach but will be pleased to participate in any discussions on the subject.”

He urged the legislature instead to look at ways in which it could provide incentives for districts that are considering the idea of merging on a voluntary basis. These could include dollars for start-up costs, including feasibility and economic studies and providing ways that districts could draw upon the expertise of others who have already gone through the process.

Gentzel expressed disappointment that the governor did not call on the legislature to examine other ways to help school districts operate more efficiently.

“Several recommendations made by the governor’s own Task Force on School Cost Reduction and his School Construction Task Force have not yet been adopted, and the savings that school districts could realize from the repeal of, or changes to, the many mandates that are imposed on districts by the state also can be redirected to the classroom,” he said. “Mandate relief is one of PSBA’s top legislative priorities for the spring.”

Rendell also called on measures that direct school boards to use their valuable volunteer time to wisely guide district improvement and called for discussions on school accountability, governance and student outcomes. Gentzel pointed out that the association had created a list of six governance standards, including indicators and benchmarks, and a Code of Conduct for school boards to consider. Thus far, more than 400 school boards have adopted these best practices, and that number continues to grow.

“We always welcome opportunities to discuss school governance and look forward to constructive dialogue with the governor and others on that subject,” Gentzel said.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is a nonprofit statewide association of public school boards, pledged to the highest ideals of local lay leadership for the public schools of the commonwealth. Founded in 1895, PSBA was the first school boards association established in the United States.

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