Mandatory diversions of millions of local dollars to poor-performing cyber charter schools and soaring pension costs mandated by Harrisburg are two of the biggest challenges facing Adams County’s public schools.
That was the consensus Wednesday as three district superintendents outlined “Costs, Cuts, and Consequences to Our Public Schools” before an audience of about 80 in Gettysburg.
Addressing the event sponsored by the Gettysburg Area Democracy for America group were Wesley Doll of Upper Adams, Larry Redding of Gettysburg Area, and Eric Eshbach, now of Northern York County and formerly of Upper Adams.
Schools in Adams County this year were required to pass some $6.5 million in local funds to charter schools, Doll said, most of them cyber operations that are reimbursed at the same rate as brick and mortar schools despite much lower operating costs.
If those cyber schools were held to the same standards as regular public schools, “they would be shut down,” Redding said, stating that cybers’ statewide test results are 47.5 percent versus 88.3 percent for regular schools.
“It’s a disgrace that we spend taxpayer money on organizations that fail students,” Redding said. The superintendents also noted that tax dollars are used to advertise charters and to employ lobbyists on their behalf.
Redding and the others said their beef is generally not with brick-and-mortar charters, since their rate of reimbursement from district funds matches the tuition rate districts charge, but with the fact that cybers also receive that rate.
Doll said his district set up its own cyber operation and found its costs were about $4,000 per student, versus the $10,000 the district must hand over to cybers, or the $21,000 it must pay for each student declared by cybers to have special education needs, a decision he said the district is not legally permitted to question.
All three superintendents presented a litany of deep cuts and multi-district collaborative approaches in the face of the state’s declining funding and increasing mandates.
For example, Doll said Upper Adams, has reduced teaching positions for 142 to 129 and administrative staff by 17 percent in recent years.
“We’re trying to run as lean as we can,” Doll said. “I don’t know what else we can cut.”
The prospect of cutting programs or considering furloughing or outsourcing employees hits Doll “deep in my heart,” he said.
“Stop comparing us to Philadelphia” and other places with a reputation for waste, corruption, and non-transparency, Eshbach said. “That hasn’t happened in this county.”
The fact is, he said, small rural districts like Upper Adams are “the canary in the mine shaft. That’s what we’ll all be experiencing.”
The superintendents lambasted state legislators, who they said have failed to: address a ballooning pension deficit; revise funding formulas that starve growing districts by guaranteeing shrinking ones the same levels of funding they received in 1991-92; or, since the 1970s, obey the state constitution’s mandate to provide 50 percent funding for local schools.
From the audience, State Rep. Dan Moul, R-91, said legislators beholden to teachers’ unions, primarily Democrats and a few Republicans from union-favoring urban areas, have prevented pension action.
Redding replied that the Republicans control both houses in Harrisburg, and went on to imply that Republican support for charters prevents reform in that area.
In any case, the superintendents agreed, neither the problem’s cause nor solution is to be found in Adams County or its dedicated teachers.
Legislators have a better pension deal than teachers, Doll said, urging that any eventual pension solution be “equitable.”
More generally, he said, legislators need to use their recess time to visit schools and learn about problems and creative solutions firsthand.
Eshbach called for an end to the “moral panic” that has led the media, legislators, and others to “demonize” teachers and public education itself as “emblems” of broader social anxieties and issues.
The fact, he said, is that “we can’t afford to live with uneducated children in our midst.”
The questions to ask, Doll said, are what the effects of education policy are on providing equal opportunity for all children, having the educated citizenry that democracy requires, and the well-being of local communities and the state as a whole.
Referring to the public, Doll said, the schools “need you to be organized and let our local representatives know the importance of public education. They need to hear your voices.”
The superintendents responded to audience questions, cited myriad statistics and budget figures, and addressed many other aspects of school funding during the 90-minute session in Valentine Hall at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.