Pattye Benson

Community Matters

school funding

The Money is Running Out for Some Pennsylvania School Districts . . . Can they keep their doors open?

One school district in crisis . . . can others be far behind?

The Duquesne School District is located in Allegheny County, a suburb of Pittsburgh. A former steel mill town, Duquesne is no newcomer to hard times. The last couple of decades the population in this cash-strapped community has steadily declined.

In the age of Big Steel, towns like Duquesne, Pennsylvania were the backbone of America’s industrial might . . . a beacon for thousands of immigrants looking for a better life. But that was then . . . this is now. Once a booming steel mill town, Duquesne began its downward economic spiral in 1985 with the closure of a U.S. Steel facility. The largest employer in town, U.S. Steel provided a steady tax base and, more importantly, jobs for the hundreds of kids coming out of Duquesne High School each year. The plant closed and with its closure, so went the jobs. Unemployment figures soared, economic decline began and hope for the future has slowly disappeared.

In 2007, Duquesne’s only high school was forced to close . . . the school district can only afford to educate its young people in grades kindergarten through 8th grade. If you want a high school education, you must go to anther school district. The state declared the district financially distressed in 2000.

Fast forward to 2011 and Corbett’s proposed massive public education funding cuts; what does it mean for the future of Duquesne and its children? U.S. Steel decided it was no longer profitable to keep its doors open in Duquesne but the school district does not have that option. For the record, currently Duquesne School District relies on $11 million of its $14 million budget from state funding. Corbett’s proposed budget will mean a loss of $2,000 in state funding per student in the Duquesne School District where more than half of the students are from low-income families. Raising property taxes in this cash-strapped district is not an option.

Declining tax bases in some areas of the state are forcing those school districts to the edge. As other school districts across Pennsylvania struggle to keep foreign languages and the arts in their curriculum, Duquesne School District fights just to keep their doors open. The Duquesne School District’s proposed ‘bare bones’ budget for 2011-12 includes the elimination of 35 teaching jobs, freezing salaries and increasing class sizes to 23-to-26 students per class. Their pared down program includes no academic coaches, no tutoring, no field trips, no sports teams or no extra-curricular activities. Is this skeleton programming a sufficient education?

If there is no change to the proposed state budget cuts to public education, Duquesne School District may have to close its remaining school doors. Duquesne School District is but an example of a Pennsylvania school district on the brink of complete failure. But it does beg the question, can others be far behind?

It is important to look beyond our own backyard as we focus on the finances of our own school district and its budget deficit.

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