Education eats up a huge chunk of state budgets across the country, and as governments slashed funding, districts are feeling the effects of glaring reductions.
Pennsylvania "is in the middle of the pack, nationally" regarding state budget cuts, according to a Pennsylvania School Boards Association researcher.
"We have problems, but the budget was balanced without tax increases. Some states need both spending cuts and tax increases," Dave Davare said.
Schools across Pennsylvania are coping with state education funding shortfalls by cutting extracurricular activities, as well as culling savings from employee wage freezes, furloughs and not filling positions for those who retire.
At Central High School, for example, students in the stage lighting and sound class that was added for this coming year will not be working as originally planned on "Aida," which was curtained by budget cuts voted on by the Spring Cove school board.
Senior Connor Greenland's voice, which he's honed through lessons with the district's music director, will have one less opportunity to be heard.
Greenland said the elimination of the $15,000 musical is a cause for concern.
"I think we are moving in a direction that will eventually cut arts completely," Greenland said.
He added that he hoped that won't happen.
"I can't imagine going to school every day and not having music,"
To prevent staff cuts, many districts' employees have accepted wage freezes, but not all districts could elude furloughing teachers.
Chestnut Ridge school board members originally furloughed 20 teachers, but reinstated 12 to fill retirements, said Superintendent Mark Kudlawiec.
"The staff loss will hit the high school level the hardest," said Kudlawiec, who noted the high school would be missing a teacher from science, math, social studies and English departments.
The Spring Cove School District is down eight teaching positions from furloughs and retirements.
"Districts can't cut a million dollars or more and not see an impact," said Superintendent Rodney Green.
However, school administrators in central Pennsylvania report the effects from cutting teacher positions are masked by declining student enrollment over the course of past years.
Philipsburg-Osceola Area Superintendent Stephen Benson said district staff was thinned from 350 employees to 290 over the past six years as enrollment declined.
"If the state cuts again next year, we will be in serious pain," he said. "We are very lean. There is no more to cut. Academic programs will absolutely have to go."
All Blair County district administrators report no cuts to core academic programs. They also said having class sizes into the mid-20s is not a drastic change.
Even so, some high school classrooms will have enrollment up to 30 students in districts, including Hollidaysburg and Altoona.
"I wouldn't be able to deal with it," said Cory Myers, who was taking a summer class at Altoona Area High School in order to graduate. "Teachers have trouble talking over classes with 15 students. I don't know how they would be able to answer all the students' questions in classes doubling that size."
Although AAHS Principal Patricia Burlingame said having classes with 30 students is "no different from years past," Hollidaysburg elementary teacher Stacey Studdard said "any increase is a disadvantage to students at all levels."
Gripped by the possibility that the 2011-12 school year may only be the beginning of financial woes, some district administrators may look to philanthropists and corporations willing to open their checkbooks to help bridge the gaps.
Bellwood-Antis Superintendent Brian Toth said he has future plans to sell naming rights to the district's football field.
Student-athletes including Nick Torsell approve of the idea.
"As long as I can still play football there, it's all right with me," Torsell said.
While football wasn't cut, other sports were in one area district. In addition to cutting eight teacher positions, the Chestnut Ridge school board voted to cut middle school boys and girls soccer, and boys and girls track and field in the coming school year.
All Chestnut Ridge middle school sports, including boys' basketball, were scrutinized.
Zac Corle, 10, played basketball for the first time this past year at Chestnut Ridge Elementary. He said he is glad to have his sport to look forward to next year in middle school.
"It's really important to save money, but kids really like sports," Corle said.
Blair County is far from alone in feeling the pinch of budget reductions.
Similar circumstances are affecting all 500 school districts across the state, according to Jay Himes, executive director of Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
"Schools have been cutting across the board, including reduction of junior high sports, supplies and [instituting] pay to play," Himes said.
Even though supplies have been clipped from budgets, some teachers have a few tricks to keep shelves stocked for their students.
Community foundations throughout Blair County award thousands of dollars in grants each year to benefit teachers and students.
Bellwood-Antis High School English teachers, including Kerry Naylor, have stocked their classrooms since 2009 with books for students' recreational reading.
She said they've gotten the help from the Bellwood-Antis School District Foundation, which gives them approximately $2,000 per year.
More than 50 grants were awarded to Hollidaysburg teachers last year from the Hollidaysburg Area School District Foundation, said district spokeswoman Linda Russo.
"I expect more teachers to apply this year in light of budget cuts," Russo said.
Dealing with cuts
Northern Bedford Elementary Principal Carol Louden said with the economy as it is, she doesn't count on reopening elementary school doors for 3-year-old pre-kindergarten classes that were cut for this year.
The school board may scrap some elementary field trips, too.
"Considering cutting some field trips has never happened in the past," said Northern Bedford Superintendent Scott King. The school board is to make a decision by August.
To help balance Claysburg-Kimmel School District's budget, officials cut the elementary school's free three-week lunch program in June, which had been offered to students and community members for more than 10 years.
Business office officials said the program, which was partially federally funded, ended because of dwindling participation and the district's share of the expense.
The cut surprised Lesli Kerr, Claysburg-Kimmel Elementary school Parent Teacher Organization president, who said 75 percent of the elementary school students are eligible for free and reduced lunches during the regular school year.
"Every time we had eaten the lunch when the kids had basketball camp in June, the cafeteria was pretty busy," Kerr said. "My kids had their favorite menu items."
For families living miles apart in a rural area, the free lunch program was also an opportunity for children to see their friends during the summer.
"I don't think the children who used to take part in the free lunch are going anywhere else," Kerr said. "What are these kids going to do? That's one of my concerns."
Pay to play as an option
Instituting registration fees for sports is another major cost-saving measure that some districts are looking to.
Danielle Krug, a coach in the Penn Cambria School District, is not a fan of the idea.
The volunteer elementary girls basketball and co-ed soccer coach said being able to avoid registration fees ultimately keeps kids on the field who would not be able to pay.
"Booster clubs' funding is low as it is," Krug said.
Penn Cambria school board members considered adopting a pay-to-play system but rejected it for the coming year.
"Everything was on the table to save money," said Penn Cambria Superintendent Mary Beth Whited. "For small districts, this year's funding loss and teacher cuts were able to be absorbed with minimal backlash.
"But if we have to do it again next year, education will suffer."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.