State Passes On Reduced School Costs
By the Editorial Board
Aug. 26, 2018
A majority of Pennsylvania school districts have raised taxes for the impending school year and the Scranton district — one of just two in the state on a calendar-year budget — has estimated an increase of nearly 8 percent for 2019.
State lawmakers continue to enjoy their two-month-plus summer vacation. And they have scheduled so few session days before the November election that there is zero chance that they will do much to alleviate the local burden, much less the heavy lifting necessary to truly reform obsolete school governance and financing.
There are many moving parts to the state’s over-reliance on local property taxes to finance public education, not the least of which is legislators’ reluctance to transfer more of the burden to the state government and, therefore, to their own political prospects.
State inaction multiplies costs
But a big part of the problem is that Pennsylvania has far too many school districts — 500. Most of the debate about school finance typically focuses on sources and amounts of revenue, and very little debate usually focuses on the other side of the ledger — costs. And it could not be more obvious that the Legislature’s refusal to reduce the number of school districts creates vastly excessive costs.
In 2011, an independent study of six school districts in Fayette County found that consolidating them at the county level would save about $20 million a year in reduced administrative costs, purchasing, personnel management, contracting and so on.
Lackawanna County has 10 school districts within its borders and is partly served by two others based in neighboring Wyoming and Susquehanna counties. No study has been done of consolidating those districts at the county level, but the savings obviously would be substantial — one superintendent rather than 10, far fewer supervisors, one business manager, high-volume purchasing discounts, single vendors rather than one per district, and so on.
Legislators know of the savings available based one of their brief forays into local government efficiency. When the Legislature mandated joint collection of wage taxes nearly a decade ago, reducing the number of wage tax collectors from more than 500 to just 69, it reduced the administrative costs of local tax collection by more than $200 million per year.
Call for voluntary consolidations
The 2011 Fayette County study prompted the Legislature to commission a statewide study of consolidation, but that produced a recommendation only for voluntary consolidations to avoid the political fallout from mandated consolidations. There has been just one voluntary consolidation since then. Not surprisingly, poorer districts sometimes seek mergers with wealthier neighboring districts, which aren’t interested for obvious reasons.
That points to another major flaw in having 500 school districts. There is a vast gap between the haves and have-nots, which works directly against the state constitutional mandate for the state to ensure an adequate education for every child in Pennsylvania.
Short of consolidation, there are interim steps that the Legislature could take to reduce costs until lawmakers muster the political courage necessary to mandate mergers. It could require neighboring small districts to share administrative services, including curricular and business management and regulatory compliance. It could expand the administrative services offered by 29 intermediate units that handle special education for multiple school districts.
There are many examples around the nation of county-level school systems saving money without sacrificing quality. The closest is neighboring Maryland, where far fewer school districts per comparable population produce equal or better academic results.
Modern technology and management techniques make it feasible for Pennsylvania to vastly reduce the number of school districts while improving educational quality. To not do so is a colossal waste of resources.