The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

David Knepper

May 1, 2011

From crisis comes opportunity

JOHNSTOWN — “Ask me my three priorities for government, and I’ll tell you: Education, education and education.” – Tony Blair, former prime minister of the United Kingdom.

This spring has been unusually unkind. The pollen has kicked up my allergies with a vengeance; the lawn shows little sympathy for my aches and pain; and even the unusually severe thunderstorms have more than once made me race for the apparent safety of my home. Last but certainly not in the least, the weekly pain at the pump, an economic malady, that just never quite goes away.

There is one bright hope – the shivering temperatures of this past winter seem to have all but dissipated. But if that is not so, the governor’s proposed school funding cuts will certainly make it feel a lot warmer than it really is.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed $23.7 billion budget plan for 2011-12 contains a number of steep cuts. With an estimated $4 billion deficit, Corbett sent shockwaves rippling from the schoolhouse to “main street” with his announcement that he would cut $2 billion from public and higher education.

Even his most ardent admirers were stunned by this gutsy move, and, to no one’s surprise, his popularity rating plummeted.

The governor knew that the present levels of school spending could not continue without levying higher state taxes – a campaign promise that he feels compelled not to renege on.

Perhaps this crisis will prompt a willingness by lawmakers, educators, parents, students and local taxpayers to hold public forums to discuss educational topics such as school choice, school closings,  school performance (test results) and, most importantly, insuring educational equity in all of our 500 school districts.  

The pendulum may be swinging toward greater transparency by asking the public for its input on important issues affecting their schools. Seeking a nonbinding public referendum on key issues using electronic surveys is just one of the many ways to interact with the public. Finally, let us support initiatives, such as the one organized by state Rep. Bryan Barbin (D-Johnstown) to hold more educational public forums, such as the one hosted by the Pitt-Johnstown on Wednesday.

If there is one thing that all of us can agree on is that there are options to fix the problem, painlessly and without a great deal of sacrifice. Our youth should not have to wait on the sidelines hoping that this generation will get it right.

There are no “rain checks” or educational vouchers for a student for what may be termed educational malpractice.

As Plato warned, “the direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.”  

Why did government, at all levels, ignore the signs of a slowdown in the economy where revenues were not falling behind increased expenditures.  

Wasn’t deficit spending a lesson that even our parents preached? Didn’t government officials ever believe that their spending binges were excessive, and in most instances were not supported by the vast majority of taxpayers but only by special interests and lobbyists or government program managers who kept winning for increases to their yearly budgets?

Recently, one option that has surfaced in the state Legislature to help struggling school districts to balance their budgets for 2011-12 is calling for furloughing teachers solely for economic reasons.

Running a school like a business may seem like a good idea, but furloughing teachers solely for economic reasons, as proposed in SB 612, has met with stiff opposition and, no doubt, would be headed to the courts if passed.

One tenable option that is now supported by some state legislators is, rather than to push for school consolidation, school districts could share school personnel in a regional or county configuration. This new arrangement would reduce administrative costs by sharing one school superintendent, business manager, curriculum director or other administrative/managerial personnel, particularly in small school districts with less than 1,000 students, for example.

Pennsylvania school districts that are now struggling to balance their budgets for 2011-12 should not jeopardize the delivery of quality education to our students.

Jerry Oleksiak, treasurer of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, told legislators that “schools cannot shut their doors when revenue is insufficient, nor can they turn away any student, regardless of the individual challenges they may present or the unique needs they may have” (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 4).

One thing that seems perfectly clear is that the consequences of the governor’s budget proposals will impact most significantly on our students, pre-K to Grade 12. There will be in the next several weeks, hopefully, some compromise and accommodation on the part of the governor and Legislature.

Wiping out a $4 billion deficit by not returning tax dollars to our publicly funded schools and colleges/univer-sities will inflict a terrible punishment on those who have little say in how schools are funded through state dollars.

Let’s move forward with all due speed and determination to ultimately avoid this crisis from ever happening again.

Yes, we can!

David A. Knepper is president of Allegheny Development Group LLC and is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears the first Sunday of each month.

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