Erie at Large: The Hard Costs of Public Education
Erie Public Schools Superintendent Jay Badams faces an impossible decision.
Erie Public Schools (EPS) Superintendent Jay Badams faces an impossible decision. By way of the budget impasse between Gov. Wolf and the General Assembly, the school district is broke, teetering on the edge of its own fiscal cliff.
The school district's options are, effectively: 1) to operate with no cash on hand, asking teachers and staff to work for free until legislators in Harrisburg reach an agreement; 2) to borrow millions of dollars at a yet-to-be-determined cost to the district and taxpayers; 3) to close the doors, turn out the lights, and go home until public funds are released from the state coffers when the budget is passed.
To Badams' credit, and the credit of the Erie Education Association, the local teachers' union, an agreement was made between the parties that would keep teachers in the classrooms for a finite amount of time without pay. But deferring salaries in the name of keeping kids in school only provides slight relief because the overhead of operating the district far exceeds payroll. There are bills to be paid, maintenance to be done, and services to render before students and teachers enter the equation.
If the district chooses to finance its near future, it stands poised to lose millions of dollars in fees and interest, all of which would have to be repaid. Monthly operating expenses near $15 million. Repaying such debt is no easy task. The Secretary of the Budget suggested to Badams that the Commonwealth might cover those fees and interest and help negotiate the best possible terms of such a deal, but that's all part of a larger debate in Harrisburg and no guarantees are being made … by anyone.
In the most dramatic move yet, Badams recently requested and received authorization from the school board to close Erie's public schools, grades K-12, because the district simply won't have the money to keep the doors open. Other schools have longer timelines to consider these difficult options because they have larger local tax bases. EPS does not. EPS receives 67 percent of its budget from state and federal funding, all of which is distributed from Harrisburg. In contrast, school districts across the Commonwealth receive, on average, just 38 percent of their budgets from state and federal money. Badams may well have been the first superintendent in the Commonwealth to initiate such drastic measures. He did so to sound an alarm for our policymakers – particularly those with public education at all levels in their sights – to say that the real consequences of the budget impasse are far greater than the political capital accumulated by the strange theater that accompanies the legislative process.
It's this third option that has garnered the most attention, and for good reason. As Badams eloquently pointed out to a capacity crowd at the Jefferson Educational Society on Sept. 22, closing schools in October means more than making up school days next summer. It puts the city's children at risk, leaving them on the street where the potential for violence looms larger than it has in many years past. After the deaths of three Erie public school students in two senseless shootings this past July, Badams sent an impassioned letter to the homes of all children – those enrolled in parochial as well as public schools – in the City of Erie at the start of the school year reminding parents that in spite of all the violence we've experienced in this community, schools remain the safest harbor for the children of Erie. In a world of instability and uncertainty for so many students who attend Erie's public schools, the classroom offers consistency and certitude.
So if the act of closing Erie's schools sounds like a "scare tactic," you can be sure it is not any more a scare tactic than the game of Russian roulette being played on the floor of the General Assembly. It's a means to an end, an act of self-preservation, and a hard cost in what's become the business of public education.
Jim Wertz can be reached at jWertz@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.