Districts consolidate students to make ends meet in budgets

A combination of state funding cuts, declining enrollment and the looming teachers’ pension crisis have combined to create a storm of financial trouble that already has cost some area school districts their art and music programs.

Those districts that aren’t already operating on a bare-bones budget have been looking to the state for aid since the 2011-12 school year cuts and subsequent budgets with slashed or flat funding.

Some are hoping help will come this year, with the Legislature poised to flush millions of dollars into state education for the 2014-15 budget.

But with the storm still looming, the final frontier of cost savings might just be in buildings and transportation. Three area districts – Altoona Area, Chestnut Ridge and Westmont Hilltop – have voted to shutter one of their buildings within the past year.

Making the decision to close schools

According to data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 288 schools have closed between 2010 and 2013, with most of those closures, at 103, coming in 2011.

About a fifth of the schools were able to reopen later as a new school, but 235 remain closed – including eight in Blair, Bedford and Cambria counties.

Making the decision to close a school is difficult, even if the choice is obvious and practical, said Steve Fisher, director of school services.

“Any time you close a building, it’s an emotional issue, and it’s a big deal in any community. … There’s almost a reluctance to do it unless you really have to,” he said.

Fisher said he knew of one district that took years to work up the will to close several of its buildings, despite the fact that many were operating at 40 or 50 percent capacity.

And while the area’s eight shuttered schools might seem insignificant compared to the other 227, districts in the Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 in Blair, Bedford, Cambria and Somerset counties continue to feel the financial pinch and will look “anywhere to save money without impacting instructional programs,” said Executive Director Thomas Butler.

Many receive between 50 and 70 percent of their funding from the state. With their financial future uncertain, it seems natural to try and eliminate an expense that wouldn’t force cuts to elementary physical education, band or art, he said.

Some have chosen consolidation.

Saying goodbye

As the school year comes to a close for Chestnut Ridge School District, with non-seniors to report Tuesday for their last day of class, New Paris Elementary students are preparing for their last days at the school; district officials voted last spring to shutter the 53-year-old building, moving its more than 200 third- and fourth-grade students to the middle school, which currently houses fifth- through eighth-graders. Under the plan, eighth-grade students will transfer to the high school.

The move was years in the making and is expected to generate a significant savings of up to $150,000 annually, according to a presentation Superintendent Mark Kudlawiec made to the school board last year.

As an outlying building, New Paris’ teachers were losing out on about 40 minutes of class time daily, having to dismiss pupils early so they could be bused to a central “hub” before being transported home, Kudlawiec said.

“It wasn’t necessarily money, but we were losing a lot of instructional time there every day,” he said.

With a 10 percent enrollment decline over the last five years and a total of 18 percent expected by 2021 according to a school study, closing the school was a sensible decision, but whose effects won’t be known for a few months as officials calculate new busing routes and the logistics of moving teachers and staff. It’s unclear whether the move will require layoffs.

Working with less

Many schools are counting on the state to pull through for students, but planning in case it does not.

The governor’s proposed 2014-15 budget would bolster education spending for the first time in four years, when Gov. Tom Corbett’s first 2011-12 budget reduced classroom spending by about 10 percent, half from state programs like charter-school reimbursement, and the other half in basic education subsidies, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Should the Legislature accept Corbett’s plan, special education funding would get a $20 million boost – its first in six years – along with more than $340 million in spending for a new “Ready to Learn” block grant program, which replaces the former Accountability Block Grant.

But the plan provides no increase for the basic education subsidies cut in 2011, and classroom funding is still $430 million below 2010-11 levels, the center wrote.

A calculator built by the Pennsylvania State Education Association shows through a dropdown menu exactly how past budgets have impacted schools across the commonwealth and details how many fewer dollars they are spending per student now than they were during the 2010-11 school year. Penn Cambria and Portage Area are both spending more than $360 less, according to the chart, with Everett spending $420 less. Claysburg-Kimmel tops the list in Blair County at $410 less, while Hollidaysburg Area took the smallest hit at $209 less.

And even with new funding, expected contributions toward teacher pensions and anticipated health care costs are expected to eat up additional monies.

Some schools began squirreling away money years ago in anticipation of the spike, while others have started gutting nonessential programs. All the while the pressure mounts on superintendents and business managers to tighten purse strings any way they can.

More closings ahead?

Even with the weight of district finances on their backs, many school officials balked at the idea of shuttering its buildings.

Vincent DiLeo, Central Cambria School District superintendent, said administrators considered Jackson Elementary – one of the district’s two elementary buildings, and which has a Johnstown mailing address – for the chopping block years ago but were discouraged by parents.

“Jackson is smaller, but it’s a very vibrant school,” he said. “It has a tremendous groundswell of parent support and its own identity.”

Enrollment is dropping at Central Cambria, with the district losing roughly 20 students per year, DiLeo said. But the school board has chosen to slim the budget through teacher attrition and heavier reliance on extracurricular booster groups and parent-teacher organization fundraisers.

It’s also increased the cycle for uniform upgrades from five to six years, and cut sports scrimmages and limited how far teams could travel for practice games.

All those things help, he said, and Jackson Elementary is an area the board would rather not touch.

Despite overall enrollment decline, Jackson’s numbers are stable, and the district needs to be able to serve the outlying Jackson Township area.

“If it came to that point (of closing the school), there would have to be a lot of discussion and showing that the district is losing money by keeping the school open,” DiLeo said.

Central Cambria already has downsized, having moved its middle school students to the same campus as the high school years ago, accommodating sixth- through eighth-graders with an addition onto the existing building.

The old middle school was over 80,000 square feet – almost one and a half times the size of a football field – with substandard windows and plumbing and open stairwells, DiLeo said, sapping money from the rest of the district. The new middle school provided thousands of dollars in savings, though DiLeo couldn’t name an exact amount, and allowed students to share the high school’s pool and library, among other resources.

Such measures help toward the bottom line and help kick the can down the road, he said, but everyone knows big decisions are imminent.

“Most districts, especially in Cambria County, are treading water. Just keeping our heads above water,” he said. “We’ve been putting money back, but we’re not sure if it’s going to be enough.”