February 27, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Secretary of Ed: Administration open to discussing district consolidation

Lawmakers divided over how much it could help struggling districts
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Ron Tomalis is fond of saying that the state's 500 school districts are not a magic number.

The state Secretary of Education indicated a willingness to discuss the possibly of consolidating some Pennsylvania school districts as a way to rescue some that are struggling financially and save money for other districts.
But any movement toward consolidation would not be easy and would not come without its drawbacks, he warned.
“Is there a magic number that should come from Harrisburg and say, ‘This is the number of school districts?’ I don’t think so,” Tomalis said. “But there is no simple answer to this issue.”
Tomalis told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday the administration wanted to give districts the tools to handle their own budgets without constraints from the state level. 
That philosophy is reflected in Gov. Tom Corbett’s decision to change the way the state funds education, in an effort to increase the districts’ flexibility in using the money and decrease state requirements. A side effect of this change could be the reduction of school districts.
Tomalis pointed out that many states have county-based systems, but the gains in administrative oversight could be offset by making the school system less responsive to individual parental concerns, he said.
Currently, the state's 500 districts are not arranged in any particular way.  Some are nearly as large as counties, others as small as single municipalities, and a few include portions of multiple counties. 
Lawmakers are divided on the issue.
Consolidating some of the “artificial political boundaries” that the state calls school districts would reduce administrative overhead without laying off a single teacher, said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, who has been beating the drum for school consolidation for decades, to little avail.
“I would think the whole state needs to look at it,” said Wozniak, who advised the financially struggling districts to “talk to their neighbors” and find economies of scale, even as independent districts.
State Sen. Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, wrote in an email that he supports the administration’s plan to review consolidation, but believes the concept to be “politically impossible” when it comes to the state’s struggling districts.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the districts should look at consolidating so-called “back office services,” which generally include staffing in information technology, human resources and accounting.
“That’s probably the simplest thing that should be pushed much more aggressively in this budget cycle,” Hughes said.
Wozniak said administrative consolidation would make the most sense, but any change would be “controversial, challenging, and difficult at best.”
But state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, minority chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the immediate problem is providing funding for financially distressed districts. 
“Any efforts at consolidation are going to take years, but meanwhile these districts are on the verge of financial collapse,” said Dinniman, who criticized Corbett for not addressing the problem in the newly proposed budget. 
Those include Chester-Uplands in Delaware County and about a dozen other districts statewide that may become insolvent by the end of the current school year. 
The state is in litigation with Chester-Uplands over the payment of about $20 million that the district said it was promised. Without that money, the district may not be able to make payroll until the end of the year.
About 70 percent of the district’s funding comes from the state, and costs have increased from $87 million to $115 million in the past decade, while student enrollment has dropped by 1,000, Tomalis said.
Dave Davare, director of research services at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which represents school districts, said districts facing economic hardship frequently discuss consolidation, but those with more serious fiscal problems, like Chester-Uplands, may not find a neighboring district with whom to merge.
"If you’re talking about a very small district that is only about 200 students, then it’s not hard to absorb," he said. "But when you’re talking about Chester-Uplands, even if you merge it with a wealthier district, can they handle that financial burden?"
At Ridley School District, which borders Chester-Uplands to the east, superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel said any consolidation would have to be done carefully and with local approval.  If any state-level discussions take place, local officials must be involved, she said.

"If you want to have a successful transition of any type, you have to bring in the people who are on the ground," Wentzel said. "There are an awful lot of human beings involved in this process." 

An influx of even 100 new students — Chester-Uplands has more than 4,000 — would strain her district's financial planning.
In a statement Monday, PSEA president Michael Crossey slammed Tomalis for not offering any plan to help the financially distressed school districts.
Corbett’s proposed budget would spend $10.6 billion on the Department of Education, making it the second most expensive department in the state. The largest chunk of education dollars — $5.3 billion — goes to the 500 school districts.
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