More classes and programming options, updated equipment, smaller teacher-to-student ratios and lower taxes for residents.
This is what the decision on school funding handed down last month from Commonwealth Court could mean for underfunded school districts across Pennsylvania.
President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled Feb. 7 that the state had to reform school funding to meet the constitutional promise that all students receive a “thorough and efficient” education. The decision came after a monthslong trial based on a lawsuit by six school districts, parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania Conference.
Hundreds of school districts in Pennsylvania are considered to be underfunded, including many in Allegheny County. The county also has 10 districts that are among the 100 lowest funded in the state, according to Robert Scherrer, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
While the result of the ruling will have to be worked out by the state Legislature and will likely face appeals, it could eventually help struggling school districts in areas long having a need for more funding.
“They might be in a position to pay teachers differently to attract more teachers, to retain more teachers, as well,” Scherrer said. “It will give them more funding to address some of the facilities challenges that may have been neglected because they didn’t have the money to do that. It would give them an opportunity to provide some of the basic services for their students that right now are a real challenge. So that’s where we see the benefit of this for so many districts.”
The Pittsburgh Union Progress asked the superintendents of several of Allegheny County’s most underfunded school districts — Baldwin-Whitehall, Clairton City, South Allegheny and Sto-Rox — what the ruling could do for their districts.
Each district faced a shortfall of thousands of dollars in adequate funding per student in 2020-21, according to the Public Interest Law Center:
- Baldwin-Whitehall: $4,278 adequacy shortfall per student.
- Clairton City: $2,776 adequacy shortfall per student.
- South Allegheny: $3,450 adequacy shortfall per student.
- Sto-Rox: $5,086 adequacy shortfall per student.
(Some responses were edited for length.)
How do you think this decision will directly impact your students?
Tamara Allen-Thomas, superintendent of Clairton City School District: “This decision will directly impact students by ensuring that there will be access to quality education. It recognized what educators know: All children can learn and succeed when given the tools.”
Megan Van Fossan, superintendent of Sto-Rox School District: “Our students do not have the same opportunities as students in well-funded districts. Our kids attend school in outdated buildings, with fewer staff and fewer instructional programs.”
How often have you wanted to do something for students but were unable to because of financial limitations?
David McDonald, acting superintendent of South Allegheny School District: “I think it happens every day. We are student centered, student focused. But [we] simply can’t write a blank check in South Allegheny. When you look at the amount a mill brings in and the number of businesses in our district, we are not generating local income the way other districts do. We have to be very creative and thoughtful with the way we spend every dime. I think our teachers understand that and are very careful.”
Allen-Thomas, of Clairton City: “There are many times in my short time at Clairton that I wanted a program, a highly qualified teacher, parent and community engagement events that were innovative. I wanted updates to our building and uniforms for our extracurricular groups and sports teams. Additionally, I want to provide every student with the technology and art programs that will allow them to have well-rounded experiences.”
Can you describe what your school district looks like to you with equitable funding?
Randal Lutz, superintendent of Baldwin-Whitehall School District: “I would look to reduce class size, especially at our elementary [K-2] levels, as well as look to increase electives at the secondary level.”
McDonald, of South Allegheny: “We would become a very viable opportunity in the Mon Valley for young families. The housing is right, the taxes are right … our location is right. Already, we are changing how people think about us [our district]. We’re on the map for doing a lot of cool things.”
What additional programming do you see possible with more funding?
Van Fossan, of Sto-Rox: “We need staff to provide skill remediation as well as more AP/dual enrollment courses.”
McDonald, of South Allegheny: “The additional money would enable us to steady and balance our budget and really do an inventory of the programs we have going and making sure we are getting the results we want out of those things. Education is probably the fastest changing thing on this planet right now.”
McDonald added that the district needs to study how to prepare students for a future workforce, keeping in mind that everything has to work with the global environment companies and organizations find themselves in. “We would look at the programs we have in place and figure out how to prepare them the best we can.”
How might adequate and equitable funding for your district impact your community?
Lutz, of Baldwin-Whitehall: “If we find ourselves winners of the funding formula debate, the first thing I would hope to do is alleviate some of the burden on the local tax payers. Sixty-one percent of our budget comes from the local communities and real estate taxes. Our residents are wonderful as we have a collection rate of over 96%. But relief is needed.”
Allen-Thomas, of Clairton City: “This decision recognized that education is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution to all children — and that right has been denied in low-wealth districts like mine. Equitable funding means access to careers and trades that will provide generational wealth.”