Their View: Rural districts need fair spending formula

I have spent all of my 27-year career serving students in rural Pennsylvania school systems, 20 of which have been in school leadership positions.

In that span of time, I’ve learned a few things that I consider to be absolute truths.

First, our children work very hard, and it shows. More often than not, a majority of Pennsylvania’s public school students perform well in the classroom, and this historically has been even more true for our rural public school students.

Second, the performance and work ethic of our children can be directly attributed to our families and our dedicated teaching and administrative professionals, both of whom are committed to the well-being of kids.

Unfortunately, rural districts around the state are struggling, and if the state itself doesn’t change the way it funds public education, our children will fall behind.

State budget cuts have decimated many of our classrooms, forcing us to cut or curtail programs and increase class sizes. This fact has been especially evident in Mifflin County School District, where I, as superintendent, had to recommend the closure of six buildings; consolidation of high schools and middle schools; the elimination of 83 positions ranging from cabinet-level administration to support staff; and the curtailment or elimination of programs that were valuable to students, such as tutoring and some AP classes.

Our teaching staff took a wage freeze for a year. Our administrative staff has taken wage freezes three of the past four years. Parts of our support staff took wage reductions in order to avoid having their jobs outsourced. Our entire staff moved to a high-deductible health care plan to reduce future health care cost growth.

The effects of state budget cuts have been so pronounced in a rural system like ours that we were even featured nationally on “The PBS NewsHour” in 2011.

We’ve cut where we can. We’ve even cut where we really shouldn’t. We’re working with other districts to share resources. We’re trying to manage resources and taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible.

We know that our families are increasingly strained each time we have to request a property tax increase. These are compelling reasons we need a sustainable, predictable, adequate, consistent and fair funding formula in Pennsylvania.

Right now, there is no formula, so as we try to develop budgets at a local level, we can only guess at the level of funding we may or may not receive. Without a formula, funding levels are subject to political whim.

Forecasting how we are going to plan curricular and instructional changes becomes increasingly difficult. How do you map out a spending plan for resources to align to a changing curriculum when you don’t know with any certainty what your funding will be from one year to the next?