Pennsylvania public schools have risen to the challenge to provide education to the commonwealth’s students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have become creative and innovative and used whatever resources they could muster to deal with the local diverse challenges they face. PSBA recognizes that in these difficult and challenging times schools need Harrisburg policymakers to help reduce costs and remove the barriers that hamper local innovation. PSBA is announcing the creation of a campaign consisting of legislative proposals addressing cost savings, planning and budget issues of concern to our members. This initiative was developed through member recommendations and is designed to relieve school districts from the effects of state-imposed unfunded and underfunded mandates as well as provide the flexibility needed to weather the challenges of our current crisis.
PSBA calls on the state to pass broad relief for public schools that allows them to realize immediate savings and strategic flexibility to better confront current and future challenges. PSBA’s proposed campaign to achieve these goals calls for broadening mandate relief, enhancing flexibility for budgets, reforming charter school funding, updating transportation policies, providing needed personnel management flexibility and modernizing public advertising rules.
Broad Mandate Relief Beyond the Waiver Provision in Act 13: PSBA is calling for a comprehensive proposal to permanently re-establish the highly successful mandate waiver program which operated from 2000 to 2010. Under the program, school districts were able apply for waivers to suspend a wide variety of mandates on public schools. Under this new proposal, a school entity could adopt a resolution to apply to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) for a waiver to suspend one or more provisions of law or regulations. When granted these waivers would enable the school entity to improve its instructional program, or operate in a more effective, efficient, or economical manner. Certain laws and regulations addressing significant issues such as student safety and health would be excluded from allowable waivers.
Budgeting Flexibility: In the event of a partial state budget which would require a second general appropriation bill later in the year, further legislation would be needed to allow districts to reopen budgets during the school year to make necessary adjustments in spending. Current law allowing school districts to reopen their budgets is specific to a single annual state budget and does not account for a scenario where the budget would be completed in pieces.
Charter Funding Reform: Reform here is a two-fold request. First, create a statewide cyber charter funding formula in recognition of the fact that cyber charters do not have the same level of expenditures as their brick and mortar counterparts. The current crisis has further emphasized the need to address how the tuition formula grossly overpays cyber charter schools. Legislation should address the true costs of cyber education and should set an annual statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools.
Next, Pennsylvania must apply the same special education funding formula used by the state for school districts to Pennsylvania’s charter schools. Although the special education funding formula was updated in 2014 to more accurately target resources for students identified with high, moderate and low needs, the changes were applied only to school districts and not to charter schools. The formula, which is based on student costs, should be applied to all charter schools in order to stop the overpayment of more than $100 million per year in taxpayer funds which charter schools do not even use for special education purposes.
Address the Digital Divide: This COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the extreme connectivity disparities that hamper efforts to provide continuity of education across the Commonwealth. Legislation that expands the deployment of connectivity in Pennsylvania is needed to enable broadband providers to easily deliver their services to areas where it is needed. School Districts and our students need access to the internet in this new environment, Pennsylvania needs to be a leader in supporting deployment.
Flexible Instruction Days: School districts have found that the Flexible Instructional Day (FID) program allows them to be prepared for snow days and other emergencies. Increasing the number of allowable FIDs from 5 to 10 and making application timing requirements more flexible will allow schools to be better prepared in the future for events which makes the use of school buildings unfeasible. Many school districts have also learned through providing continuity of education during the COVID-19 pandemic how to effectively utilize these days.
Reduce Advertising Costs: Current law requires school districts to advertise public notices in printed newspapers. But, with newspapers sharply reducing or eliminating regular printing and increasing advertising costs, school districts are finding it increasingly difficult and expensive to comply with current, archaic advertising requirements that existed before the age of the internet. School districts should be provided relief by creating a menu of options, including electronic and print formats, by which notices can be advertised, thus allowing districts greater flexibility in advertising methods and lowering advertising costs. Public school officials fully support the need to keep their communities informed of school events and operations, the challenge is to use the best forms of communication to interact in a timely and cost-effective manner.
Delinquent Real Estate Tax Collection: Many school districts utilize very efficient and cost-effective entities for collection of delinquent real estate taxes other than the local county tax claims office. However, current law mandates that every school district pay commissions or fees to the County Tax Claim Bureau even if they use another entity that collects taxes more efficiently. At a time when districts need to save funds, we cannot afford to pay for services that they are not actually receiving.
Cash Flow Assistance: The anticipated loss of local revenue has the potential to put certain districts in situations where cash availability during the beginning of the school year may be an issue. An initiative to extend the Tax Anticipation Note (TAN) payment from the current one year period to two years will assist districts who run into financial distress.
Graduation Requirements: The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the current plan to implement a new state graduation mandate for the class of 2022 due to the necessary elimination of all standardized assessments in the current school year. This new graduation mandate requires students to either achieve success on all three Keystone Exams, or pivot to successfully meet the requirements of an alternative graduation pathway if their standardized assessment scores were not sufficient. Current freshman and sophomore high school students are already working to meet the new graduation requirements, but school closures and canceled Keystone Exams means that these students have lost precious time and must deal with uncertainty in how they will meet the new requirements. In order to address delayed testing, career planning and other graduation activities that may be necessary for students, Pennsylvania needs to extend the effective date for the new graduation requirements by an additional year.
Transportation: State law should be amended to remove a school district’s obligation to provide transportation to a student living within the district boundaries but attending a private school that is located outside of Pennsylvania, except in the case of special schools and classes approved by PDE that provide specialized instruction to students with disabilities. Further, the 10-mile transportation limit should be reduced to 5 miles for all private school transportation requirements. Taxpayers spent $257 million in 2018-19 for public schools to transport students to private schools. Pennsylvania is one of only five states who currently pay for private school transportation.
Economic Furloughs: This proposal would allow school districts to furlough professional and support staff for economic reasons in a more flexible manner without the artificial constraints the current process mandates. School districts would only be able to utilize this provision in the event the district experiences a local or state revenue shortfall of at least 2% by January 1, 2021. Districts would then be able to utilize the economic furlough provisions of School Code section 1124 during the school year without the additional limitations.