It’s a message Timothy Shrom has been preaching since his co-authored report with William Hartman was published 11 month ago – about 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s school districts are expected to face financial hardship in the next few years unless something changes.
“I am kind of upbeat,” Shrom, the director of research for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, told the Pennsylvania Economy League recently. “But this can kind of get to the point where you shake your head.”
“A Tale of Haves and Have-Nots: The Financial Future of Pennsylvania School Districts” is more than just a forecast of doom and gloom. The 28-page report published by the Temple University Center on Regional Politics outlines the reasons why some districts have more funding than others.
Over the last few years, on average 20 percent of the districts in the state did not see their assessed property values grow.
Another reason is the state's funding formula for charter schools, Shrom told the Pennsylvania Economy League recently. School districts are required to fund charter school tuition costs. But for some districts, that expenditure exceeds what they receive from the state in basic and special education needs.
Shrom pointed out that giving parents a choice through charter schools is not the problem.
“The biggest problem we have with our choice policy is that we did a one-size fits all across the state, and a lot of school districts didn’t really need that kind of choice,” Shrom said. “But we never really let the public vote on that either. We just kind of did it."
Shrom's statements on charter schools echoed those this past summer of state Sen. Pat Browne, a Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Browne had described charter school funding as having reached a "crisis point."
"The charter school funding formula was established 22 years ago and was the best available platform at that time," Browne said in August. "However, now it has created an irreconcilable financial conflict between charter and traditional schools which mandates both in-depth review and responsible legislative and executive action to address."
School districts are required to have a balanced budget, so that means something gets cut, Shrom said. He compared it to balancing a checkbook with one percent less annually. Do that for a few years and it adds up, according to Shrom.
Nearly 300 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts will be in some form of fiscal stress where the revenues are less than their expected expenditures by 2022, according to Shrom’s report.
That leaves school systems in a quandary. Referendums to raise taxes to fund schools often fail, according to Shrom. That leaves it up to state lawmakers, which concerns George Ioannidis, superintendent of the Spring Grove Area School District.
“My concern is in the next five years we are going to go back to the trend of deficit spending and not be able to sustain it,” he said.
The gap between the “have” and the “have not” school districts is not very wide – just a percent, percent and half or two percent, Shrom said.
Some of the current policies are contributing to the divide between the “haves” and the “have notes,” Shrom said.
“How we approach this is going to really matter,” he said.