December 11, 2016
The Erie City School District (ECSD) in Erie, Pennsylvania is facing a budget crisis that is threatening the future of the district as four high schools may be forced to close in the 2018-2019 school year if budget trends continue.
The ECSD financial report revealed the district had a $5.8 million budget deficit for the 2016-2017 school year.
Gov. Tom Wolf and legislatures, in a newsroom press release, announced that the state budget this year included critical funding for Erie, securing an additional $7.5 million to support the district.
In a statement reported by Erie News Now, ECSD Superintendent Jay Badams expressed his thoughts on the additional state dollars saying, “The emergency funding will certainly help close our deficit for this year, but we will continue to work with our elected officials on long-term solutions to our financial crisis in order to provide Erie’s students with the education they deserve.”
Badams and the School Board of Directors outline in a financial recovery plan designated to Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, that despite covering the budget deficit this year, current funding methods will not be substantial going into the future.
Anticipating a $10.1 million budget deficit for the 2017-2018 school year, the district plans to eliminate all arts and sports programs, full-day kindergarten programs, libraries, and technology purchases. In addition to these cuts, local property taxes will be increased.
Principal Tammie Smith of Roosevelt Middle School explained local property taxes, even with increases, are not sufficient saying, “We have Gannon University, Hamot and Saint Vincent hospitals that make tons of money, but are non-profit. Even the Sheraton Hotel and convention center bring lots of business into the city, but because they are along the Bayfront, the National Park Service owns that, and they don’t have to pay taxes then because the Park Service is non-profit.”
According to openpagov.org, in 2014-2015, local revenue on average made up 59.6 percent of school district funding in Pennsylvania, while the ECSD only earned 34.9 percent of its’ total funding from local revenue.
Superintendent Richard Scaletta of the General McLane School District commented on the funding system saying, “Property taxes are part of the problem with disparity among school districts…the new fair funding formula should address that issue but it will take about 20 years.”
Act 35, proposed as HB 1552 in 2014, was approved by Wolf this past summer, putting the fair funding formula into action for the 2016-2017 school year.
The newly implemented formula allows districts to receive supplemental funds in addition to yearly basic education funding. The formula takes factors such as poverty levels, local capacity efforts, and the average daily membership (attendance) to calculate and assign a weight to each district, determining how much supplemental funding it will receive.
Estimates from the 2016-2017 state budget indicate that of $5.9 billion total funds for basic education in Pennsylvania, $352.4 million were to be distributed through the fair funding formula as only new state funds are applicable.
The ECSD qualified for 1.69 percent of this allocation, equalling a supplemental amount of $6 million, bringing the total amount of state funding to the ECSD to $63.3 million.
As Scaletta indicated, with this system in place it will take time for it become effective in pulling the district out of its’ financial crisis. Yet, in analysis of the new law, the financial recovery letter states the formula ensures “that meaningful relief will come to Erie too late to have an impact.”
As the ECSD prepares for an unknown future, continuing cuts are no longer viable options as the district has “closed three elementary schools, eliminated 349 fulltime positions, and cut central administration in half” since 2010 according to the financial recovery letter.
Jennifer Dennehy, a professional hoop dancer who has taught after school classes with the district since 2011, had to turn this year down due to cuts.
“Many of us partners had to unfortunately decline being involved any longer due to the reduction in pay. It is really unfortunate because many of the children through the city enjoyed being able to learn the unique movement art form of hoop dance and are no longer able to due to the budget.”
Letters from surrounding school districts’ superintendents to Badams show support for the fight to increase state funding to the district, as they anticipate the potential effects of high school closures to ripple throughout Erie County.
In the case schools close, 3,200 students may be sent to neighboring districts. This will cause not only overcrowding, but a need for more staff to accommodate the population growth and english language learners, in which all of the surrounding districts indicate they will not be able to do.
Of five letters, four close with a message that provides a bleak outlook for the future of Erie County if ECSD high schools are forced to close their doors stating, “The impact of closing Erie high schools on the region is clear: one by one, districts will become insolvent and the region’s economy will collapse.”