Carbondale Area School District officials, like those in districts across Pennsylvania, are preparing for a significant reduction in state funding as they await passage of a final budget from Harrisburg.


Carbondale Area School District officials, like those in districts across Pennsylvania, are preparing for a significant reduction in state funding as they await passage of a final budget from Harrisburg.
Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed eliminating $1 billion from public schools to help address a $4 billion budget deficit.  The proposed cuts amount to 10 percent of Pa.’s primary subsidy for public school instruction, plus more than $500 million in grants.
Corbett’s top education adviser supports the plan.  Education Secretary-nominee Ron Tomalis says more than $1.1 billion went into raises for school employees since the recession began in 2008, and he also argues that higher education spending doesn’t necessarily translate into better education results.  Critics say the cuts could cause widespread teacher layoffs and possibly force the closure of a school district in rural Susquehanna County.
Regardless of the arguments on both sides, though, school districts are scrambling to deal with a potentially sizable shortfall in the amount of state funding they receive.  For Carbondale Area, superintendent Dr. Dominick Famularo told the NEWS that this looks to be about a $1.6 million reduction in subsidies, depending on the final budget numbers.
“Naturally, that’s a big concern to me and to the board of directors,” he related.
Famularo stated that this is particularly daunting for the district due to the fact that, on the opposite side of the ledger, expenses will rise as much as they do every year, if not go even higher.  He said these projected increases will include higher salaries, an expected 12 to 13 percent hike in health care premiums, teacher retirement costs, and what he called “the usual utility increases.”
District business manager David Cerra said the $1.6 million that Carbondale Area may lose from the state — $800,000 in federal stimulus money, $500,000 in charter school reimbursement, and a $300,000 block grant which the district has been using to fund its all-day kindergarten — is about twice as much as most other districts are losing.
“The severity of these cuts are massive for us,” he offered.  “Needless to say, that’s a lot of money for our school district.”
At the same time, he noted that a new state-imposed indexing mandate has eliminated the district’s ability to raise taxes to make up for the loss in subsidies.
“They’ve taken away the district’s ability to raise revenues locally [through taxation],” Cerra explained.  “So it’s not like it was seven or eight years ago, when we were able to raise tax rates to address the budget crisis we faced in 2003-04.  Now we’re going to have to find other ways to do it.”
“That’s going to be a big challenge for us in the next two or three years out,” he related.
District officials have already begun looking for ways to cut back, beginning with a school board vote last month to place a moratorium on all trips by board members and administration officials to conferences and seminars.  The longstanding policy of using taxpayers’ money to pay for these trips — with each district official allowed to attend one out-of-state conference a year and receive up to $1,900 in reimbursement for travel, lodging and food bills — was a source of controversy following excursions by groups of district officials to places like San Diego with some family members, although the expenses of family members were not reimbursed by the district.
And, of course, Carbondale Area is also in the midst of planning for a high school renovation project which will be funded by $15 million in low-interest bonds from the state.  The public bid opening has been postponed until next month, with bids now scheduled to be opened in the high school library at 4 p.m. on May 3.
For the time being, district officials are waiting on the state budget to see what the final numbers will be.  Although the budget is due by June 30, Cerra pointed out that state officials have failed to meet that deadline for most of the past 10 years, so he’s not holding his breath.
“But who knows, this year we have a Republican House and Republican Senate with a Republican governor in office, so maybe this is the year they come in on time,” he offered.
Whether they do or not, he noted that Carbondale Area’s budget must be in place by June 30.
“Basically we’re going to wait and see what they do, and go as late as we can with our budget,” Cerra explained.  “The proposed cuts are very controversial, but nothing is official yet, so we’ll just have to see where it all turns out.”
Famularo related that he’s not looking forward to the prospect of finalizing a district budget at the end of June if the state still hasn’t adopted its budget by then.  But he also knows he won’t be the only one struggling with these issues.
“We’re in the same boat as all of the other school districts in the state,” he reasoned.