November 21, 2021

Maddie Hanna: Superintendent testifying in Pa. school funding trial says his rural district is broke

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In Pennsylvania, the trial has begun addressing the state’s broken funding system. Maddie Hanna reports on one superintendent’s testimony showing just how bad things are.

The Panther Valley School District was facing tough decisions last year to balance its budget: Should it cut its entire art program, or music? What about letting go of more of its sports teams, having already dropped wrestling and cross-country?

Instead, the rural district, which enrolls 1,800 students from Carbon and Schuylkill Counties, used federal pandemic aid to plug its budget hole. The state had warned against using the one-time money on recurring expenses, said Superintendent David McAndrew, but it was the only option to preserve the programs.

“When I say we’re broke, we’re broke,” McAndrew said Monday, testifying as the first witness in a historic trial over how Pennsylvania pays for public education.

McAndrew’s district is one of six suing the state, alleging that school funding is inadequate and inequitable and calling on the state to direct more money to poorer districts, which face wide gaps in spending and achievement compared with wealthier communities. Lawyers for Republican lawmakers say that the gaps aren’t unconstitutional and that the state isn’t depriving children of adequate educations.

Taking the stand in front of Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer in Harrisburg, McAndrew highlighted the challenges faced by some of the state’s rural districts with weak property tax bases. Though Panther Valley’s tax rate is the 10th-highest in Pennsylvania, it ranks in the bottom half of districts for how much money it can spend per pupil. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say it actually ranks in the bottom 20%, using a state formula that assigns greater weight to districts with needier student populations.

While a lawyer for House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) had argued that Panther Valley and the other suing districts had the “basic instrumentalities” of education — “chairs to sit in, desks or tables to write at, walls and roofs, working plumbing,” the lawyer, Patrick Northen, said during Friday’s openings — McAndrew said Monday that wasn’t an accurate characterization.

“I was appalled a little bit by hearing that, because so much more goes into education,” McAndrew said. “But sometimes we don’t even have that.” For instance, the district has 75 kindergartners sharing a bathroom, and roof leaks and flooding issues that require it to run an outdoor pump every time it rains.

Read here for the full report.

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