14 March 2011

Education Summit preview: Brian Jensen

We asked participants in "State of the Schools: A Countywide Education Summit" to respond to three questions about our schools, and we're sharing their responses on Mondays through the week of the summit on April 14. These are the questions we posed:
  • What’s the biggest challenge confronting public education in York County today?
  • What can the community in York County realistically expect to achieve to deal with that challenge?
  • What would your first priority for action be?
Today, we hear from Brian Jensen, senior vice president at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the executive director for the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

By Brian Jensen

I have spent the last 23 years of my life in the Pittsburgh region, and while no expert on the state of public education specifically in York County, I would venture to say that school districts across the Commonwealth face the same basic set of challenges.

School district healthcare and other benefit costs continue to rise. Pension contributions, in particular, will escalate for decades to come (see chart above). In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the local share of public school pension contributions were $277 million. In the 2035-2036 fiscal year, they are projected to reach $3.8 billion.

My daughter, now in fifth grade, will be nearing middle age before pension obligations begin to decline, and it is likely that her children will be starting to put their own children through school by the time the unfunded accrued obligations of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System are made whole.

I wonder how we would feel about our great grandparents if they had left such legacy costs for us to pay. How can we Pennsylvanians in 2011 continue to justify such generational theft?

Is there a way to at least lessen the burden on our great grandchildren?

We shouldn’t expect much financial help from the Commonwealth: Its share of school district pension costs will mirror those of the local districts. At the same time, the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System is also severely underfunded and will need to be restored. And it doesn’t appear likely that general state support for public education will increase any time soon. With increased state support unlikely and local sources in the form of property taxes nearing the tipping point or already tapped out, revenue solutions are at best limited.

It seems clear that benefits will need to be restructured. A law passed late last year took some rather modest steps in this direction. Much more aggressive action, such as implementation of defined contribution or hybrid systems, will need to be taken, if Pennsylvania is to continue to prepare its young people to compete in the global marketplace.

It is too late to protect our children from this pernicious fate. We need to demand prompt and fearless action from our state government if we are to protect our grand children and great grandchildren from the mistakes of their ancestors.

Brian Jensen is a senior vice president at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the executive director for the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern Pennsylvania. He manages the civic policy portion of the competitiveness program. One of his primary responsibilities over the past several years has been to develop a strategy in support of municipal pension reform and service sharing between the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Brian led PEL’s participation in the joint efforts that resulted in the 2008 passage of legislation to consolidate earned income tax collection and in the 2010 passage of legislation to make municipal merger and consolidation more straightforward.

Municipal government issues have been a theme of Brian’s 24-year career with PEL. He played a major role in the development of ComPAC 21, the process that led to the reengineering Allegheny County government. He facilitated the extensive multi-year effort to implement the ComPAC 21 recommendations, including drafting enabling legislation to expedite Allegheny County home rule, coordinating the home rule charter drafting process, drafting the county administrative and ethics codes, training the new County Council, and staffing transition committees. Brian has a Ph.D . in History and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia in the mid-1980s. He lives in the borough of Ben Avon and is active in the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon as an elder, deacon and a tenor in the chancel choir.



What: "State of the Schools: A Countywide Education Summit"
When: 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. April 14
Where: Pullo Center at Penn State York, 1031 Edgecomb Ave., York
How much: Admission is free, but advance registration is requested and box lunches will be available for $5.
Confirmed participants: Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, will provide the national context. An afternoon panel discussion will focus on school district budgets and the looming pension crisis. Presenters and panel discussion participants include:
  • Brian Jensen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern PA and senior vice president of civic policy for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development;
  • Dennis Baughman, president of the Board of Trustees for the York Academy Regional Charter School;
  • Thomas Gentzel, executive director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association;
  • James Testerman, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association;
  • Republican State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, who represents parts of York and Lancaster counties and serves on the Senate Education and Appropriations committees
  • Republican State Rep. Ron Miller, who represents southwestern York County, including York, Springfield, Shrewsbury, Codorus, Manheim and West Manheim townships;
  • Republican State Rep. Will Tallman, who represents York and Adams counties and serves on the House Education Committee;
  • Democratic State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, who represents York and parts of Spring Garden and West Manchester townships;
  • Dayna Laur, award-winning and nationally recognized teacher from Central York School District;
  • Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center;
  • Joel Sears, president of the York County Taxpayers Council. 
To register: Send an e-mail with your name, school district and phone number to events@yorkcounts.org, and if you plan to purchase one of the $5 box lunches, please indicate your lunch preference from these wrap choices: turkey, ham, chicken salad, tuna salad or veggie.
For details: Contact Dan Fink at YorkCounts at 717-650-1460 or at dfink@yorkcounts.org.


Anonymous said...

Why is tax reform not part of the discussion of education and overall budget cuts. Public services cannot be sustained by proprty tax.

YorkCounts said...

Anonymous, I think you're right that the state will have to finally do some kind of tax reform that gets us away from relying on property taxes. And I would expect that to come up during the day as we talk about how we fund education.