At a time when students need to know more as federally mandated goals for state standardized test scores continue to rise, laying off teachers stings.
Local school districts, including Northern Bedford County and Tyrone Area, plan to furlough employees.
In Harrisburg, Central Dauphin School District plans to furlough about 84 employees, district spokeswoman Shannon Leib said. The Philadelphia School District plans to lay off 2,700 school employees, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Although there are differences among these rural, suburban and urban districts, the layoffs are made possible by shared traits, including a substantial decrease in pupil enrollment.
Pennsylvania has 35,000 fewer children in the public school system since 2000, but 35,000 more school employees, according to the Commonwealth Foundation. The reasons for the drop in enrollment may be a combination of factors including more school options, researcher Priya Abraham said.
Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, a critic of public school spending, said he believes the spike in school employees is unnecessary and may be tied to a desire for small class sizes that he doesn't believe truly benefits learning.
Districts' ability to cut down staff size is limited, but desired by some district administrators.
Unlike other public entities and private industry, school districts are prohibited by state law from reducing staff size if funding is insufficient, but there are some exceptions: significant declining enrollment districtwide, curtailed programs, a school closing or school consolidation or reorganization of the school district.
Without that decline in enrollment, schools would have to cut programs or close a school to furlough employees during the current state funding crisis.
In some cases, those factors mesh. Long-term declining enrollment was a factor under which elementary schools will be closed next year in the Hollidaysburg Area and Bedford Area school districts.
Bedford is laying off eight teachers as a result of the school board closing Hyndman-Londonderry Elementary School. A teachers' union representative was not available for comment.
Seniority saves when it comes to furloughs, and senior teachers ousting younger teachers is a root of contention, school district solicitor Dave Andrews said.
Teachers furloughed but certified to teach another subject have the right to take a position held by a teacher with less seniority in the district, Andrews said.
It is called the bump rule.
Andrews has seen teachers use their bump right to oust a teacher who has less seniority but more experience teaching a specific subject.
"A lot of smart, young teachers are getting as many certifications as possible to protect themselves," Andrews said.
At Altoona Area School District, the school board doesn't plan to furlough employees, but it wants more freedom to lay off teachers than current laws, supported by teacher union advocates under the Pennsylvania State Education Association, gives them.
The problem with furloughing employees for declining enrollment is the decrease must be over three years, so districts are only able to furlough employees every three years and only if enrollment is down by at least 3 percent decline, Andrews said.
Altoona has the declining enrollment to furlough employees but hasn't laid off workers.
"Districts try to do anything to try to avoid furloughs," Andrews said.
Altoona supports proposed legislation in the state House that would allow districts "to more freely manage professional employees" and allow layoffs for economic reasons.
The layoff regulations can cause friction between teacher unions and school boards so much that Altoona Area Education Association President Jim Krug decided to stay away from commenting on the school board's support of the legislation.
Such legislation is co-sponsored by Eichelberger, who has been in favor of the changing union-driven furlough laws for the past year and hopes to change the law this year.
"Some administrators are not vocal about it or against it because they don't want to get into odds with their teacher unions," Eichelberger said.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association is working with the House on the bill regarding furlough procedures, but the larger issue is how furloughs affect children in classrooms, PSEA spokesman Dave Broderick said.
"The question is not how or by what procedure employees are furloughed, it's finding ways to fund schools in the first place," Broderick said.
For the 2012-13 school year, the state has allowed districts to remain at 2008-09 funding levels to which they sunk last year after federal stimulus funding was depleted.
"It is a real conundrum," Northern Bedford School District Superintendent Scott King said. "I understand the business mindset of cutting expenses, but we aren't dealing with widgets, we are educating students. And they get one shot of going through school."
As of Friday, the Department of Education has approved 44 school district furlough requests for curtailed academic programs in the 2012-13 school year and 12 are pending, said spokesman Tim Eller. The department does not track districts laying off teachers for declined enrollment.
"It is tough to be a board member or administrator in a rural school. 70 percent of the district's budget is from the state," King said.
Those state resources have been used to make the Northern Bedford Elementary School a 2011 Blue Ribbon school.
Northern Bedford plans to furlough a teacher in compliance with state laws by curtailing programs to eliminate one teaching position in the pre-K 4-year-old program.
Since the program will be curtailed, the teacher will bump into another kindergarten position held by a teacher who has not been with the district for a year.
The board will also eliminate one principal position.
"Administrators are not immune," King said. "The public wants to know that if layoffs are happening in classrooms, they are happening throughout the district offices."
It becomes more problematic to furlough administrators, Andrews said, because administrators have the right to bump back into a teaching position. The same rule applies for teachers with multiple certifications.
The Northern Bedford principal will bump into a teacher's position, so the district will be losing two teachers, King said.
"There is no question that the teachers who are leaving with less seniority are excellent teachers. It is very unfortunate. They have had a positive impact on students and parents," King said.
Four Northern Bedford non-professional employees in custodial, secretarial, cafeteria and instructional aid categories will also be furloughed and do not need state approval. Nonprofessional employees may be furloughed for economic reasons.
Pre-K and kindergarten programs are not mandated but are crucial, King said.
"At a time when the bar is rising - kids need to know more, and expectations continue to rise - and here we have resources being cut by the state," King said.
"I'm not blaming the state or Gov. Corbett. It is a whole combination of reasons. The economy has a lot to do with it."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.