The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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June 6, 2014

School reform urged

JOHNSTOWN — A local state senator Friday renewed his call for public school reform and wants to see charter and cyber schools held to a higher standard for student learning outcomes.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, will introduce legislation in the fall calling for the formation of a commission to look at all aspects of public education, but in particular the price tag of having 500 superintendents and administrative staffs statewide.

“I want to create a commission to study (public school) consolidation,” Wozniak said. “It would develop a map of what the state would look like. We have to make our schools more competitive.”

Wozniak spelled out his plan for the education commission – similar to the statewide transportation commission of 2011 – to business and community leaders at the annual State of the Commonwealth held at Pitt-Johnstown.

The event, sponsored by the Johns-

town/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce, included remarks by state Reps. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, and Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township.

Following the breakfast session, chamber members and others were given an opportunity to pose questions and express concerns to the trio.

A second initiative Wozniak vowed to push is reform to the rules and regulations governing third-class cities – those the size of Johnstown.

Of particular interest, he said, is what can be done to change the rules for those cities, including Johnstown, operating under Act 47 distressed status.

Pennsylvania has 50 third-class cities, with many of them in distressed status, a program he termed as a “slow and steady death spiral.”

“Third-class cities are a mighty political force, but getting them together is like trying to herd cats,” he said.

As for the education commission, Wozniak said he has toned down his push for consolidation, an effort that lacked adequate bipartisan support a couple of years ago.

This time, he said, rather than telling everyone how it will be, his legislation will develop a structure for the commission and spell out goals to be studied.

He made no suggestions regarding how many districts the state should have, but suggested that is something the commission will address.

If all goes as planned, the commission could be appointed and working by this time next year, he said.

Education swallows up a huge percentage of the state’s budget, Barbin said.

Of the $28.5 billion annual spending plan, education accounts for 40 percent; health and welfare, 40 percent; corrections, 10 percent; and everything else gets what is left over.

“We don’t need two superintendents and two business managers for two schools each graduating 50 people,” Barbin said.

Of the dollars available for education, charter and cyber schools are eating up $1 billion, and many students are not making the grade, Barbin said.

Just 10 percent of the students educated in cyber schools are passing achievement tests, and just 25 percent of those in charter schools are making the grade, he said.

Burns supports the initiatives to improve public education and wants to see sound education for all students, regardless of income or social standing.

With the state’s June 30 budget deadline quickly approaching, the local legislators said the $1.2 billion deficit currently projected may actually come in at a lower figure. But Barbin said there is little doubt the state will end the fiscal year in the red.

With the 2013 adoption of revenue enhancements for bridge and highway projects providing funding for much needed infrastructure work, attentions are now turning to other initiatives, Wozniak said.

Some things Democratic legislators will be looking at include:

• Tax fairness plan – closing corporate loopholes, reducing homeowner property taxes with other forms of taxes.

• Changing the taxing method on Marcellus and other unconventional natural gas extractions.

• Pension reform.

• Medicaid expansion.

• Liquor modernization.

Kathy Mellott is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellottd.

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