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Court to hear school funding suit

Claysburg-Kimmel part of lawsuit brought by rural, small schools

CLAYSBURG — Commonwealth Court will hear a lawsuit next week alleging that the way school districts receive state funding does not follow state code and is therefore unconstitutional, according to Claysburg-Kimmel School Board Vice President Craig Burket.

The lawsuit was filed in late 2014 by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, of which Claysburg-Kimmel is a member, the State Conference of the NAACP, various school districts and parents. They will be represented by The Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center, according to Emily Scott, a producer for the Public News Service.

Bedford Area, Bellwood-Antis, Chestnut Ridge, Everett Area, Penn Cambria, Tyrone Area and Williamsburg Community school districts also are part of the lawsuit.

“We’re a member of PARSS, and basically they’re saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Claysburg-Kimmel Superintendent Darren McLaurin said. “It would help us if the funding was divvied out a little bit better for us.”

The defendants named in the lawsuit are the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pennsylvania State Board of Education, Gov. Tom Wolf, Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq, state Senate President Pro-Tem Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Sam Smith.

The lawsuit states that the Education Clause in the Pennsylvania Constitution asserts that every school-aged child in the state has a fundamental right “to attend free public schools that provide all students an opportunity to obtain an adequate education.” According to state law, an adequate education must “prepare students for adult life by attending to their intellectual and developmental needs” by “challenging them to achieve at their highest level possible” and by preparing them “to become lifelong learners and responsible citizens.

In October 2006, the State Board selected Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc. to conduct a statewide study showing how much it would cost to give each student an adequate education as defined under the Education Clause and state law. The study found that while an average estimate per student was $11,926, Pennsylvania schools “spent on average only $9,512 per student with 167 districts having a spending shortfall greater than $3,000 per student.

The lawsuit adds the poorest 20 percent of districts would need to raise spending by 37.5 percent while the wealthiest 20 percent would need to raise spending by only 6.6 percent to meet the average.

“Now, at a time where the Commonwealth is becoming more diverse, the General Assembly chooses to have 277 school districts — more than half of all districts in the state — in a situation where they need at least $2,000 more per student to adequately support their students’ learning needs so they can graduate ready to compete in today’s economy,” said Tomas Varela Jr., director of advocacy & communications for the Urban League of Philadelphia.

Districts with more than 50 percent of low-income students had per-student cuts of $883 on average in 2011 and 2012, which is five times higher than districts with a quarter or fewer low-income students, whose cuts totaled $166 per student on average, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

This means that, on average, low-income students lost 50 percent more funding than high-income students, the lawsuit alleges.

“The poorer schools don’t get as much as the bigger schools,” Burket said. “If you live in the Philadelphia or Lancaster area, you can get a lot more money than some of these other counties. We’re called fringe-rural and sometimes we don’t get the same funding.”

“Eighty-six percent of Pennsylvania school districts have an adequacy gap, and what it looks like for students and the student experience is crumbling buildings or lack of technology, libraries that are shuttered, limited or no access to career-training programs,” Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said.

The petitioners are requesting for permanent injunctions that would compel the defendants to develop a school-funding arrangement in compliance with the Education Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.

Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.

By the numbers

Pennsylvania School District Funding Shortfalls Per Student

$4,000+ (highest) shortfall per student:

* Spring Cove School District — $5,089

* Chestnut Ridge School District — $4,920

* Everett Area School District — $4,585

* Altoona Area School District — $4,363

* Claysburg-Kimmel School District — $4,339

Up to $3,999 shortfall per student:

* Tyrone Area School District — $3,859

* Williamsburg Community School District — $3,651

* Northern Bedford County School District — $3,621

* Penn Cambria — $3,583

* Bedford Area School District — $3,324

* Hollidaysburg Area School District — $3,151

Data from FundOurSchoolsPA.org

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