A School's Crisis That Didn't Need To Be

The threatened closure of four Erie public high schools would be a disaster on many levels, striking at the future of our children, the vitality of civic life, and the very identity of our city.

This crisis need not have happened, and it cannot be accepted.

Erie’s students and their families spent months as hostages in a budget standoff created by a governor who refused for months to distribute state funds due to the public schools, unless the general assembly acceded to his demand for an income tax increase.

This reckless stubbornness was abetted by members of the general assembly who supported him, first in his veto of balanced state budgets that provided additional funds for our schools, then later in his refusal to sign the fiscal code that distributed the funding.

Sometimes it seemed that the only responsible adult in the room has been Superintendent Jay Badams. He sounded the alarm repeatedly, and pointed to a reformed funding formula as the only way out, not only for Erie, but for many other cities.

Yet, this failure in leadership at the state level was only one facet of the dilemma.

The root problem is a state funding formula that essentially penalizes the districts least able to sustain themselves. The Pennsylvania Constitution mandates that the state government adequately fund our schools. This has not happened. The state’s share of funding for K-12 education has dropped from 50 percent in 1972, to less than 35 percent today.

Further, for nearly 25 years the state has relied on a hold harmless funding formula which guaranteed that districts would receive from the state, at the least, the amount of money that they received the previous year.  This means that as student populations decline in some districts, they continue to receive funding at a level proportionate to when they had more students.

In Erie’s case, the student population has remained stead, all while the tax base has declined.

Wealthier districts can make up the difference with local taxes. Not so for cities such as Erie. Erie ranks 485 out of 500 in median household income, placing us in the top 3 percent of districts with students classified as economically disadvantaged.

The connection between poverty and academic problems is well established. Erie has a disproportionate number of students who require special programs. Yet our spending per pupil is lower than 80 percent of the state’s 500 districts.

High poverty, low tax base, outdated facilities, and a general assembly and governor unwilling to address the core problem, have combined to create the perfect fiscal storm that now threatens to turn Erie into the city with no high schools.

The consequences are grim. Students will no longer see themselves as part of our city.  The shared identity of high school will vanish, as we transform a high school education from a community to a commodity.

Neighboring districts are less likely to view an influx of Erie teens as guests than as refugees. Scores of education careers by men and women who devoted themselves to the cause of our schools, and now risk finding themselves and their families thrown into economic chaos.

Let’s face it: a real city needs its own schools.

In the coming days, Erie’s civic leaders, from the business, charitable, and labor communities should come together to develop a stopgap measure to raise the money necessary to make certain our high schools open their doors for teaching when summer ends. I propose a committee of local leaders to begin the hard work of raising money as we can, pending a solution to our dysfunctional state administration.

But such an effort can hardly be more than a temporary fix. 

Pressure must be applied at the state level. The governor and his allies must stop the mischief when it comes to budget strategies, and they must commit themselves to saving Erie’s schools. They have stepped up for other districts – some of which never implemented the efficiencies and fiscal restraint shown by Erie’s schools.

It’s clear that this emergency is too dire to be left in the hands of the politicians who created it. When you have a cancer patient with a gunshot wound, you must stop the bleeding before you treat the cancer.

We need to get moving. We need to save our schools.

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