The (Hanover) Evening Sun
The pension time bomb in Pennsylvania is a $50 billion funding liability loaded with politically explosive issues.
Trying to change pension benefit packages in the Public School Employees' Retirement System faces objection from the teachers' union, a powerful force in state politics and a strong defender of public educators' financial security.
On the other side of the equation are school boards trying to balance budgets with growing pension costs and mounting pressure to keep down property taxes and maintain programs in the classroom.
Maintaining the status quo, however, has created a financial time bomb in a system that pays out more in benefits to public school retirees than it takes in. The pension shortfall in Pennsylvania is $50 billion, up from $40 billion a year ago.
The issues are complicated and have far-reaching implications. But at the heart of the pension crisis are issues very close to home: your tax bill, your child's class size and the programs in your local school.
The struggle to balance local school budgets starts with the skyrocketing pension obligation and comes down to reducing teacher staff.
Examples are everywhere: The Perkiomen Valley proposed teacher furloughs that have caused a community uproar and the proposed cuts in art programs and elementary band at Daniel Boone are just two.
"It is the number one problem in Pennsylvania and it's not easily fixed," said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, referring to the pension shortfall.
This year, local schools must pay about 21 percent of their total payroll into the pension fund.
In order to deal with the growth in that percentage, schools eliminate staff to reduce payroll.
A survey released last week by Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators showed that "nearly 60 percent of school districts have furloughed staff since 2010-11, with more than 40 percent of these furloughs affecting classroom teachers," according to the release announcing the survey's release.
"With about one in seven districts planning furloughs of classroom teachers for next year, fewer teachers continues to mean increasing class sizes, which has occurred in 64 percent of districts since 2010-11," the release stated.
Next year, according to the PASA/PASBO survey, school districts anticipate eliminating or reducing 370 academic programs, which is in addition to 783 academic program reductions that have occurred since 2010-11.
The reductions include advanced placement courses, business education, foreign languages, music, kindergarten, physical education and special education.
Several state proposals are afloat in Harrisburg to at least slow the rate the crisis is growing. Gov. Tom Corbett tried last year to get a reform package moving but failed to get any legislative traction on the issue.
But legislative enthusiasm and public support to tackle the issue are lacking.
The hard task of reducing the pension shortfall and stabilizing local schools' expense growth must be addressed. Doing nothing is not an option anymore - our children's future hangs in the balance.