Where the Waste Is: School Districts Edition

Via Bernie, this Amy Crawford story should be required reading for anybody considering education spending cuts. Wasteful political fiefdoms are the very weakest claim on the limited supply of education dollars, so before anybody goes scrapping full-day kindergarten or making kids pay to play sports, legislators should cut the service duplication fat:

Across the state, there are 500 school districts, ranging in size from mammoth Philadelphia, with about 166,000 students, to one-building rural schools with fewer than 300 in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The patchwork of districts makes little sense to Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union. He is pushing a plan that would require Fayette County’s six districts to share a centralized administration, with one countywide school board and one superintendent, a move he said would cut costs.

“One bus contract,” he explained. “One food contract. You buy in bulk. If you do it this way, you still have the identities of the schools, like they’re still six school districts. “

Mahoney has secured a state grant to look at the potential impact of his plan. If the study, due this summer, shows potential savings and educational benefits, he plans to place administrative consolidation on the ballot as a referendum.

I saw Bob Freeman geek out about this stuff at a RenewLV event last year. Can we get Bob Freeman to commission a similar study for the Northampton County school districts?

Christie Approves "Mix and Match" to Speed MuniCon

Edward Colimer at the Inquirer reports that Chris Christie has signed the “mix and match” bill that makes it easier for citizens to approve a municipal consolidation study, even if their legislators don’t want to:

Legislation that will make it easier for towns to merge was signed into law by Gov. Christie on Wednesday, clearing the way for Cherry Hill Township officials and a Merchantville citizens group to study consolidation.

The new law permits the combination of voter petitions and applications by elected governing bodies to create municipal consolidation study commissions, the first step in a possible merger.

There’s a really naive view out there that says “if consolidations were a good idea on the merits, they’d pass.”

The political economy problems with this way of thinking should be obvious. It ignores the self-preservation instincts of politicians and redundant administrators, and severely underestimates the effectiveness of lying about what will happen in a consolidation, and the willingness of opponents to do so. I think lots of consolidation proposals would win in a fair fight based on the hard facts. But I think too many will be voted down if the facts have to compete with crazy lies.

That’s why the citizen-focused system in NJ is a decent remedy, since it gives voters the option to bypass legislators who oppose consolidation.

Will Ron Tomalis Reject School District Tax Shopping?

It would be really bad precedent if Tom Corbett’s Education secretary lets people switch school districts because they want to pay lower taxes:

The coalition has cited financial reasons for the secession because Riegelsville residents are taxed differently than the district’s Northampton County taxpayers.

Riegelsville taxes rose 30 percent in 2006, while taxes for Northampton County taxpayers rose 4.5 percent. That was because the district was required to readjust assessments based on a state formula at the time.

Both the Easton Area and Palisades school districts oppose the secession movement. The move could adversely affect Palisades’ state subsidy, according to court documents, and would also cost Easton about $1.4 million in taxes.

This is why you need county-wide school districts. It’s going to be a mess if Ron Tomalis sets off an even more explicit price war between school districts. The tax rate should be uniform across a large area to prevent housing market distortions and segregation by income. A county-sized school district would be ideal in my opinion, but even combining two or three adjacent districts would be preferable to the current set-up, and certainly better than the massive segregation that would follow a a decision in favor of Riegelsville.

[Source: Colin McEvoy]

What You’re Getting Instead of a Fracking Tax

Instead of taxing fracking like every other state, Tom Corbett thinks it’s a better idea to do this stuff:

With a 6-2 vote before a sparse crowd, the Bethlehem Area School Board gave its final blessing Monday to eliminate 175 jobs, slash about 40 high school electives, pare down preschool offerings and end full-day kindergarten next school year…

Of the 175 jobs being cut, 96 are teachers.

Both Liberty and Freedom high schools would lose about 20 electives each. The electives would be cut if they do not have a minimum of 20 students enrolled. At Freedom, some of those lost electives include philosophy and literature, Poetry II and Advanced Placement environmental science. Liberty’s lost electives also include similarly titled English and science courses.

Other cost-cutting measures include eliminating a dozen full-day kindergarten classes, slashing in half the SPARK preschool, shuttering most family centers, ending tutoring, increasing student-to-guidance counselor ratios, canceling elementary and middle school intramural sports, and not buying new buses.

Clearly it’s more “Un-American” to tax extractive industries than to end full-day Kindergarten and pre-school programs.

People should also be aware that PA’s budget surplus may be as much as $300 million, making these cuts largely unnecessary. The majority Republicans are making a political choice to cut education. Nothing is forcing them to do it this way.

Raise Chris Miller’s Taxes

Andrew McGill says there is a group of patriots organizing in Nazareth who – in defiance of my terrible 6th grade Social Studies teacher Chris Miller – do not want to eat the region’s seed corn and turn out third-rate students:

For weeks, the rhetoric in the Nazareth Area School District flowed in one direction: Don’t raise my taxes.

Then directors actually debuted budget cuts, slicing off seven jobs and the driver’s education program. And lo and behold, the tide is turning.

At the school board meeting this week, residents presented a petition with 187 signatures urging directors to pursue whatever measures are needed to stave off cuts that could crimp services or inflate class sizes. And for the first time, they crossed enemy lines: We’ll take a tax hike if we need to.

“I’m here asking you to continue doing what you’ve done so far,” said Michael Woodland, an Upper Nazareth Township resident and co-owner of Dan’s Camera City in Allentown. “And if we require a small tax increase, then I can support that.”

Corbett Slouching Toward MuniCon

This is certainly not anything like a plan of action, but it’s good to see Tom Corbett endorsing school district consolidation as a means to cutting costs:

Gov. Corbett, defending his proposed cuts in education aid during a tour of a Clairton factory Thursday, said some of Pennsylvania’s school districts should consider merging.

“We’re going to work with school districts and see what they can do,” he told reporters, “but frankly I think school districts around the state are going to have to start looking at can they continue to exist – that there should be a consolidation or a merger somewhere.”…

His comments about district mergers echoed those of his education secretary-designee in a recent interview. Ronald J. Tomalis said in March that the Republican governor “wants to encourage school districts” to consider consolidation.

Tomalis stressed that the state should not compel districts to do so – as Corbett’s Democratic predecessor proposed in 2009. Ed Rendell’s call for merging the state’s 501 school districts into no more than 100 to save money gained little traction in Harrisburg.

The way this should work is that districts who are willing to study a merger get less of their state subsidies cut. The state should use its financial leverage to lean on districts to consolidate. Because this is the kind of political nonsense that’s going to make this take forever in the absence of incentives:

In Delaware County, the Chester Upland district, which has about 4,300 students in regular schools and 3,000 or so in charter schools, faces a loss of $19 million in state funding – about 17 percent of this year’s budget. The district has also struggled academically: It is one of the lowest-performing in the state.

In an interview last week, Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said districts like Chester Upland might end up in such dire straits that they would have to “go extinct.”

Chester Upland borders several richer districts, including Wallingford-Swarthmore. But even if those districts would consider a merger, many Chester Upland residents are fiercely opposed, saying they fear students and residents would lose their identity.

Obviously the form of school district administration you have is what determines your students’ identity.

Who to Blame for Education Cuts

If you want to get into the minutiae of the fights over school budget cuts in Easton and Allentown, I recommend adding Noel Jones’ Neighbors of Easton and Rich Wilkins’ new blog Broad and Pennsylvania to your daily reading. I’d like to cover this stuff, but there’s just not enough hours in the day.

For the sake of accountability, the thing you need to keep in mind on school budget cuts is that the vast bulk of the blame lies with conservatives in the US Congress. They are pretending there’s a fiscal crisis, but there just isn’t. They can, and should, bail out state and local governments by pulling their temporary deficits onto the federal balance sheet.

Next you need to blame Tom Corbett for cutting education instead of corporate handouts and tax loopholes that would more than cover the difference.

And finally you need to blame the local officials and teabaggers who would rather ruin kids’ lifetime earnings potential than pay an extra $6 a month in taxes.