Tube City Almanac

April 15, 2011

Looming State Budget Cuts Challenge MASD

Category: News || By Jennifer Sopko

By Jennifer Sopko

Special to Tube City Almanac

With both federal and Pennsylvania state budgets in limbo as governing bodies struggle to eliminate deficits, reduce spending and avoid raising taxes, school districts are feeling the pressure from impending funding cuts in 2011-12 state budget proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett.

Of 42 districts in Allegheny County (excluding Pittsburgh Public Schools), McKeesport Area School District would suffer the highest overall deduction in terms of dollar amount, with a loss of almost $4.4 million.

That includes a $2.3 million reduction in basic education funding, plus the complete elimination of the district's accountability block grant, educational assistance program funding and charter school funding, according to an outline presented to school directors in March.

The comparison also shows that MASD would undergo the biggest loss by far in basic education funding, as the district is more dependent upon these funds money than others in the county, due to their low tax base, currently at 16.71 mills.

. . .

In addition, the district's all-day kindergarten and tutoring programs are funded by supplementary grants, the loss of which threatens their operation next year, if the district is unable to come up with creative ways to generate revenue.

"It's been dominating more time, energy and effort trying to find a way to get out of the situation," McKeesport Area Superintendent Tim Gabauer told the Almanac.

According to a draft budget released in early March, Corbett proposes cutting overall state education funding by $2 billion. The projected budget includes a $550 million reduction in basic education funding for K-12 instruction in public schools and eliminates $484 million in accountability block grants and reimbursements to public school districts for students attending charter schools.

Over the past weeks the media has reported various program cuts, teacher layoffs and other means being considered by school districts through Allegheny County, which are projected to lose a total of $57.8 million in state education funding if Corbett's budget is passed.

Gabauer said the McKeesport Area district has been cautious in releasing specific information on what programs may be cut and how many staff members may be furloughed at this point because the situation remains complex and uncertain.

. . .

Click to DownloadThe lack of information has created rumors around the district about specific numbers of teachers being laid off. School board member Thomas Maglicco said that the board hasn't yet been presented with anything on paper and continues to work out the numbers, hoping to receive any extra state money available.

"Behind every single furlough, person, program, there are people," Gabauer said. "Behind every single person is a family that's affected. It's not only a professional obligation, but there's a personal side that becomes very challenging." He said he would speak with staff personally before any cuts became public.

The superintendent said that the board will have to make some moves internally but he could not elaborate on exactly how many at this point

"I can say, as we start to move through April, what people are affected, what programs are affected --- those will start to unveil themselves," he said.

. . .

Gabauer said he expects another big adjustment if the district loses its supplementary programs due to lack of funding because "90 percent of our total enrollment is probably affected by one or more of those programs."

A potential 15 percent reduction in the federal Title I program, which provides financial assistance for educating children of low-income families under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, could also create additional problems in the budget, he added.

School districts that would be hit the hardest by state budget cuts without sufficient local revenue means will have the most difficult time rebounding, Gabauer said. Documents from the House Appropriations Committee show that McKeesport Area School District has a 62 percent "poverty concentration," based on the number of students eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

The school board hopes to present a preliminary budget at the April school board meeting and have a final budget ready in May, regardless of any delays in the state budget's approval, Gabauer said. The state government has until June 30 to pass its budget.

. . .

Another possible impact of the state budget cuts could be a tax increase. When asked if the board was considering raising taxes next year, the superintendent answered that he did not know if the board would agree to do that, but that is it an option under consideration.

"I don't think there's anything whatsoever when it comes to generating revenue that is not under consideration," Gabauer said.

Yet under a state law passed in 2007, school tax increases are now tied to an inflationary index. Any increase over that amount either must be put to voters in a referendum, or districts must seek a waiver from the state Department of Education.

At 16.71 mills, the MASD tax rate generates $738,000 per mill for the district; McKeesport Area would have to hold a referendum to raise taxes more than the index --- about one-third of a mill --- which Gabauer says would generate less than $250,000 in additional income.

. . .

In recent years, MASD has made improvements. Although past state-required standardized tests have shown MASD students' proficiency in math and reading ranking below the state averages, the State Department of Education has deemed the district as "making progress" and reaching their targets.

When asked if he believed that these cuts would hinder the progress that the district has been making, Gabauer was realistic about the challenges facing the district, but remained confident in the district's ability to persevere.

"We take pride in the quality of education we can provide," he said, although "every bit of that is going to be challenged."

Currently, the district is in the midst of expanding Francis McClure Intermediate School in White Oak and is building two new schools to replace George Washington Elementary and the now-demolished Cornell Middle School.

. . .

Facing an uncertain future that may threaten the strides that the district is making, Dr. Gabauer acknowledged the realistic impacts of Corbett's potential education funding cuts, yet remained confident that the school district will survive these financial woes, although perhaps through different means.

"It's a very resilient district; it's a very strong staff," Gabauer said. "Everybody feeds off of one another and finds a way to pull together and provide the very best for the students.

"We're going to find a way to grow," he said.

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Feedback on “Looming State Budget Cuts Challenge MASD”

Cue everyone being shocked (shocked!) that this is happening as a result of Corbett being elected to office.

Also cue the holier-than-thou Republicans who think that a basic education and a free prison-quality lunchtime meal is something that a 9 year-old should have to “work for” instead of have as a basic right of being an American.

Seriously, people make me sick.
John - April 15, 2011

Good, thorough article Jason…thanks.

I feel we must take a hard long look at costs and also raise taxes.

The times where “someone else pays” is over.

Spending beyond our means has to be over.

We will have to make some painful decisions and cut back to the essentials.

tightening the fiscal belt and also raising taxes is painful to all, but necessary.

Frankly, at least when we pay on THIS end instead of paying more taxes to state or federal coffers we can see where our money is going and what it is doing…rather than hoping we get something back via trickle down.

As a parent i value our school system.

And I am realistic enough to know that it can’t come free.
Shadango - April 16, 2011

Excellent article Jennifer. Very well done. Jason, congratulations on finding such a capable contributor to the Almanac.
Paul - April 19, 2011

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