01 February 2011

Grim fiscal picture requires action now

by Dan Fink

YorkCounts will use its annual meeting April 14 at Penn State
York's Pullo Center to begin identifying ways to confront
a grim fiscal outlook while improving student achievement.
YorkCounts staff and several board members attended an event in Lancaster last month called Public Schools in Crisis. For several hours, those of us in the audience listened as one presenter after another painted a grim picture of the outlook for Lancaster County's public school districts.

How grim, you ask?

The most affluent districts are three years - three years - away from burning through their reserves and sinking into bankruptcy. The less affluent will face that situation sooner.

The phrase that stuck out was "unprecedented fiscal environment." The end of federal stimulus money. The prospect of no increases - and possible cuts - in state education funding. Caps on property tax increases. Rising costs for employee pensions and health insurance.

A conservative estimate puts Lancaster County's total deficit at $225 million over the next three years. To cover the shortfall, districts would be faced with enormously painful choices. Should they cut 500 teaching positions over that time frame, or increase taxes 13 percent a year each year?

Or should they do a little of both and start slashing budgets? But what to cut? They'll start with offerings not mandated by the state. One Lancaster presenter, the superintendent of Hempfield School District, went through a laundry list of possible cuts: kindergarten and foreign languages; art, music and phys ed; guidance counselors, school psychologists and schools nurses. They could close schools, increase class size and reduce bus service. They could ask for wage freezes and early retirements. None of it sounded appealing.

The biggest shock, of course, was knowing that these exact issues challenge York County schools now, too. From York City to York Suburban, every district is having the same difficult conversations. Take a look at this recent story by the York Daily Record/Sunday News. Their reporting shows budget deficits ranging from $350,000 in Southern York to $15 million in York City, with most clustered in the $2 million-$5 million range.

All of which brings me to the YorkCounts annual meeting set for April 14 at Penn State York's Pullo Center. Our board had already started the process for focusing on education in 2011. Last summer, we had some preliminary conversations with the York campus of Harrisburg Area Community College to partner on an education-focused event for later this year. More recently, the board concluded that driving real change in our Indicators data could be accomplished most efficiently if we work to improve student achievement across the entire county.

All of this was in our minds as we listened to the Lancaster presentations, and afterward there was no doubt that our annual meeting needed to focus on the same education issues spotlighted at the Lancaster event.

We want to come away from the summit with a few specific recommendations that will form the basis of future action by YorkCounts and our community partners. Our April event will focus on the fiscal crisis, for sure. We also hope it becomes the start of a process for future conversations about other public education issues of interest to the entire county, issues such as:
  • What do we do about public employee pensions?
  • Are there ways for all county districts to work together - meaningful ways that have not been explored to date - to provide services at lower cost?
  • How do we reduce truancy and keep more kids in school?
  • How do we better link public school courses and programs with workforce needs?
They are tough questions. And the conversations will be difficult, as they were during the Metro-York education task force meetings back in 2006. But there's no choice. These problems have to be dealt with now.

Check our Web site, this blog and our Twitter and Facebook updates for details on the summit as we add speakers and flesh out other details.

Your only homework for this? Be ready to talk about solutions.


Anonymous said...

Awesome! Outstanding ... long overdue and thank you YorkCounts for taking this lead.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to understand why York Counts is shocked to learn of the public school financial problem. The York County Taxpayers Council has been trumpeting its concern for many years pointing out that school boards were spending money at an unsustainable rate while student achievement was at best stagnant. Public schools are not competitive in student achievement or cost to the detriment of our future standard of living.

Mary Lou Alsentzer said...

Unfunded pension obligations are a huge factor in the crisis and can be linked to irresponsible governance in the State legislature. With our current legislature there is little chance that local municipalities will get anything but more cuts.
I suggest inviting Wayne McCullough, business manager for Southern York County Schools to the Pullo Center to explain their strategy for long term fiscal solvency.

YorkCounts said...

Anonymous 2, maybe 'sobering' would have been a better word than 'shocking.' But I think it's safe to say that the general public might not be paying as close attention as the York County Taxpayers Council.

Mary Lou, thanks for that suggestion. I did note Southern's relatively small budget deficit was curious how they've managed it.