Erie at Large: No Schools, No City
The recent news that the superintendent of Erie's Public Schools must consider closing the city's four high schools to meet a fiduciary duty to the Commonwealth has left the community in a state of panic.
The recent news that the superintendent of Erie's Public Schools must consider closing the city's four high schools to meet a fiduciary duty to the Commonwealth has left the community in a state of panic. Closing the city's high schools would mean that the community loses a vital resource for basic employment skills training, direct contact with at-risk youth, and social services that are close to the homes of school-aged kids.
Granted, it's the nuclear option. But if it's carried out, the schools will be the least of what we've lost.
The crisis for the school district began when it realized and affirmed through outside auditors that it had done everything within its power to right its financial ship. Yet it finds itself more than $4 million over budget in the next fiscal year.
Pennsylvania law requires school districts to submit balanced budgets to the state by June 30. But in many districts, balanced budgets are the stuff of legend. That's because the realities of maintaining a school district rarely fall within the neat confines of budget lines created by school boards, dabbling in black magic to satisfy red tape bureaucrats who have little or no experience with education or balanced budgets. Most schools find it difficult to abide by the budgets they've submitted and are ultimately left saddled with debt, not unlike the $26 million shortfall the Erie School District faced just five years ago.
Since that time, district officials have closed schools, limited programs for students, and delayed investments in essential resources from textbooks to technology, all to the detriment of its more than 12,000 students and ultimately the entire community. Poverty in schools is more widespread than ever before, class sizes are larger than ever before, and students are coming to school less prepared than ever before as a result of experiences that extend far beyond the school grounds.
Erie's schools simply lack the staff and programs required to deal with these realities. But if the schools are open, at least the students who attend have a safe haven and a hot meal. Without those guarantees, many of them have little else to count on.
The Fault Line
Looking for someone to blame during a crisis like this is reflexive. It makes us feel better, but it does little to solve the problems we face. Could we blame Superintendent Jay Badams' predecessor, Jim Barker, for leaving the district with great public relations but financial records that rival Enron? Sure. Could we blame local government for not doing enough to keep and leverage property taxpaying citizens within the city limits over the last four decades? Absolutely. Could we blame the electorate who pays little attention to candidates for their local school board; and in doing so, give the school board a mandate to manage taxation rather than school administration? Yes.
But we've lost control of our ability to change these circumstances for the better in our immediate future.
Perhaps the most disheartening trend in education-centered, blame-laden discourse is the unrelenting assault on public school teachers and students. There's little doubt that education trolls have never managed a classroom of 30 adolescents, many of whom suffer from behavioral problems teachers were not trained to address, or educational lags that take specialized one-on-one instruction to render a student grade level.
Furthermore, how many of these critics buy their own office supplies or spend countless hours preparing for a day's work well in advance of actually teaching a lesson? Comments on social media disparaging teachers for earning a living wage and blaming students for social problems throughout the city – in and out of the schools – do nothing to resolve this financial crisis.
Badams says that rising pension costs and salary increases burden the district, but he's never said that the retirees should be stripped of their benefits or that teachers don't deserve the raise. There's an important distinction to be made between the cost of doing business and that which taxes the district.
For example, payments to local for-profit charter schools that receive a share of public funds directly from Erie's Public Schools cost the district more than $85 million between 2008 and 2014. To make matters worse, former Gov. Tom Corbett cut charter school reimbursements to public school districts in 2011, while tuition payments to the local charter schools continued. Once reimbursements to the district were cut, financial ruin was all but guaranteed.
The economic strain of charter school payments is only exacerbated by the fact that Erie's Public Schools have long been underfunded by the Commonwealth. As Badams has explained many times in the past few years, the funding formula in Pennsylvania, or lack thereof, means that the district operates at approximately $3,000 less per student than most school districts around the region and across the state. It's not a problem unique to Erie, but it is a problem that disproportionately affects high-poverty school districts.
Erie's Public Schools is a model high-poverty district. More than 80 percent of students in the district live in poverty and some individual schools have rates of children living in poverty greater than 90 percent.
In a single classroom of 30 students, the district operates at a funding gap of $90,000.
The High Costs of Poor Education
In many ways, public schools have always been underfunded in Pennsylvania. The Free Schools Act of 1834 required school districts to raise two dollars from local taxes for every dollar it received from the state. This created massive inequality in school funding. Small rural communities received almost no money from the state because they had no way of generating local tax revenue.
More than a century later, the legislature passed a law requiring the Commonwealth to pay 50 percent of the cost of public education. That was in 1965, and the state rarely met its commitment. It did fund public education at 55 percent in 1974. But every year after that, funding for public education decreased before reaching an all-time low of 36 percent in 2006.
That same year, the legislature commissioned what is known as the "Costing-out Study," which concluded that school districts should be funded based on a formula favoring districts that are larger, poorer, and have higher property taxes. The formula was supposed to be implemented in 2008, but it has never been fully funded. And so-called "reformers" have questioned the weighting system used to assign funds to at-risk districts and wondered if students couldn't be "adequately" educated for less.
Just last year, a bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission recommended a fair funding formula which would put Pennsylvania back in step with the other 92 percent of the nation that uses a structured funding formula to disperse money for education. To date, the legislature has yet to take action on the recommendation, instead offering a compromise that does little to save districts like Erie's Public Schools.
Educating children has been a cornerstone of democratic society. It's one of the many ways in which the United States separated itself from other nations in its infancy and throughout the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in the late 19th century, true educational reformers of the Progressive Era emphasized the importance of continuing to educate children after 14, the arbitrary age at which young men were theoretically strong enough to perform manual labor in an agricultural society.
As America moved toward its industrial future, children needed more time in school because it prepared them, at the very least, for the assembly lines in manufacturing plants. For those who excelled, their education would include accounting and clerical skills to fill the white-collar positions at corporate institutions.
The high school was born and more children were added to a system that was publicly supported but poorly funded.
Your School or Mine?
Perhaps the greatest revelation to arise from our current crisis came when Badams announced he might close Erie's four high schools, which serve more than 3,000 students, because he can. That's right. He can.
Effectively, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not require school districts to provide education past age – wait for it – 14.
Instead, Erie's Public Schools could pay to have its high school students enroll in surrounding districts, where students would have access to textbooks that include the collapse of the nation's financial markets and the election of Barack Obama among recent historical events. They'd also have access to athletic teams that practice on lined fields and tracks, and classroom technology that's not the electronic equivalent of an AMC Hornet.
The notion that such a move might become reality has brought out the best in many Erie County parents.
Social media comment feeds on the live streams of Erie School Board meetings and a video posted by the Erie School District outlining the challenges it now faces were, in some cases, hate-filled; and reminiscent of the white reaction to court mandated school desegregation in Boston in the 1970s, which was the culmination of misplaced populism and the rise of the conservative era in which we are now entrenched.
Ironically, many of the people who oppose city kids bussing their way to the suburbs were probably proponents of school choice not more than a decade ago. "I should be able to send my kids to any school I choose," the mantra goes.
Now they're willing to publicly malign kids who haven't a say in the matter in order to defend their turf.
Let's hope that anger is quickly replaced by understanding. I'm not overly optimistic.
Nevertheless, it may not come to that. As expressed in the lede, this is Jay Badams' nuclear option.
That's why he offered an alternative on May 18 at a public meeting of the Erie School Board. Badams urged the Board not to balance the budget by June 30 as it is required to do by law. Closing the more than $4 million gap would require cutting athletic programs, arts and music programs, and closing at least one high school, among other significant cost-cutting measures. The aftermath of such cuts is not something from which the district or the city would soon recover.
Others in the community have publicly urged Badams to reconsider this approach. They'd rather he and the board "technically conform with the law" while they continue to seek ways to fund the district. But conforming with the law is a fool's errand that does little more than validate the Commonwealth's broken method for funding education.
Without a doubt, if Badams and the School Board fail to comply with the law, there are likely to be consequences. But the fight for fair funding has gone on long enough and the legislature is derelict in its duty to the citizens of the Commonwealth.
Passing a budget with a $4 million shortfall (or more) would be an act of civil disobedience that would be both courageous and principled. The battle that would ensue between the district and the state would spare the nuclear option and spark a dialogue placing Erie and communities like it on the right side of a national conversation about the future of education.
We've played by their rules long enough. It's time to change the game.
Jim Wertz can be reached at jWertz@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.