Lack of Fair and Equable Funding By State Forcing Tough Budget Decisions

group holding pictureBy Evan Brant, Pottstown Mercury

POTTSTOWN — The state's chronic under-funding of the Pottstown School District may soon force some unpopular decisions by the school board.

According to Pennsylvania's Fair Funding Formula, Pennsylvania should be providing $13 million more than it currently does each year to the Pottstown School District. The reasons state lawmakers do not have more to do with politics than policy.  

As a result of that, and the pledge the school board made in December to stay within the 3.3 percent tax hike allowed this year under state law, the district administration has been struggling to close a projected $244,000 deficit.

Until now, according to Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez, the district has used every trick it can think of to avoid making cuts to programs.

But this may be the year it can no longer be avoided as the district tries to balance a $63 million proposed budget. And the cuts may include the district's award-winning music program.

John Armato, the district's director of community relations and a member of the school board, confirmed that staffing for the music department will be discussed at the Thursday, May 9, curriculum and co-curricular committee meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m. in the administration building off Beech Street.

Triggering the discussion is the retirement of longtime concert-, marching- and jazz-band director Michael Vought, Armato confirmed. He said it is the board's obligation when trying to balance the budget, to look at any potential salary savings. 

According to the most recent budget information posted on the district website, the deficit, which had been whittled down to $111,117 by April, now stands at zero as of May 2.

Some of that savings may be achieved by re-arranging the music department and not replacing Vought, whose salary after many years is about $90,000.

According to the preliminary budget information posted by Business Manager Maureen Jampo, the music department budget is among the programs not mandated by the state and costs $695,734.

Among other non-mandated programs are athletics at $652,544; kindergarten at $1.2 million; French and Spanish at $188,209 and art at $537,447.

In April, Jampo reported that the district would save more than $97,000 as the result of eliminating a "related arts" salary; along with reducing an office position saving roughly $50,000; $58,000 in reduced energy costs and adding an additional $75,000 in delinquent tax collections.

Armato said he is not aware of any proposed reductions to athletics or kindergarten.

Armato also confirmed the district has served notice to PCTV that it will no longer be permitted to occupy space at Pottstown High School without paying rent.

The district also struggles with other shortfalls, such as an anticipated state special education funding level of $2.4 million to Pottstown, which is dwarfed by the nearly $6 million the district expects to spend — common in districts with a high low-income populations that generate more special needs students.

"This is just a preliminary budget and the final budget does not have to be adopted until June 30," Armato said.

"This is a recommendation from the administration," he said. "The school board may agree or not agree. I encourage the community to attend committee and regular school board meetings and voice their opinion and offer suggestions," Armato said.

He also pointed to the state's education funding inequities — Pennsylvania has the nation's worst funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts — as the ultimate source and solution to Pottstown's budget woes.

"This is why we keep going to Harrisburg to raise our voices. This is what they want, different interest groups — band parents, athletic parents — arguing against one another," he said.

"There should be only one side in this discussion, the Pottstown side," Armato said. "This could all be resolved if the state provided us with our fair share of funding as laid out in their own formula."

"There is no reason why the Pottstown School District should be asking if it has the right number of teachers in the music department except one — Harrisburg," he said. "The question we should be asking is how many music teachers do we need to ensure our students' continued success and achievement?"

Armato said the Republican-controlled General Assembly "limits how much revenue we can raise, then they allow cyber charter schools to literally steal money from the community, and now they want to increase tax credits to allow businesses to pay less tax to provide scholarships to private, parochial and private schools."

A recent analysis by the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit indicated that cyber charter schools cost the Pottstown School District $2.2 million a year, the largest amount in the entire county.

"Then when we look at cutting programs because we have no other place to look, they use it to deflect anger to the local school boards," Armato said. 

The next full school board meeting is Thursday, May 16, at the high school cafeteria.

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