WILKES-BARRE – School districts may face daunting challenges, but the real fix often isn't within an individual district's hands, a research expert told a crowd gathered for an information session Friday.
Most fixes must come from Harrisburg, said Dave Davare, retired director of research services at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. But that's where most of the problems start, which is why they don't get fixed, he said.
Speaking at the Ramada Inn during a session set up by the Pennsylvania Economy League Central Division, Davare said he started looking at the top school-district issues every five years since 1992 and found a pattern.
So he went further back and looked at the top issues every 10 years from 1972 and the pattern continued.
The reason: Harrisburg changes the rules without knowing the reality.
Whenever the state legislature is involved, they will get it wrong, Davare told a group of businesspeople, educators, administrators and some of those state politicians. Why? They just go out and do these things without talking to anyone.
Davare cited four attempts at school tax reform since 1988:
• A plan to let each county set its own sales tax was rejected because it would be cumbersome and inequitable.
• Another plan failed because it replaced property tax with an income-tax increase, and roughly one-third of school property taxes come from businesses, meaning such a shift would move more of that burden to individual taxpayers.
• Two others left the decision up to school districts and voters and were widely ignored because, like the others, they shifted taxes rather than reducing them.
The definition of tax reform for the average taxpayer is ‘I pay less,' Davare said. And I don't see that working, where everyone pays less and we still do what we need to do.
Similarly, the state has changed how it doles out education money to districts at least four times since 1992, yet the state pays a constantly shrinking share of the total cost of Actual Instructional Expenditures, money that goes into classrooms rather than things such as construction and transportation, Davare said.
The state may have increased total subsidies, but the money hasn't kept up with the mandates, Davare said.
Davare also talked about inequity in charter-school funding and a looming spike in district contributions to teacher pension funds – caused by a state-controlled increase in pension benefits in 2001 and the ensuing bad economy.
The one place districts can change things on their own is shared services and facilities.
Davare cited districts that share a business manager, use one another's transportation programs to reduce overlapping trips and even share curriculum, allowing students enrolled in one district to attend classes in another rather than offer the same course in both when the number of students in each is small.
The bottom line, Davare said, is that districts need to do more with less.
We're hitting a brick wall. Taxpayers are saying enough is enough, he said. And it's not a local problem; it's nationwide.