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For State College, School Budget Worries Are No 'One-Time Battle'

on April 18, 2011 9:25 AM

Somewhere between tax returns and local monsoons this weekend, I couldn't shake the feeling that we -- the community "we" -- are missing something.

Our focus these past couple weeks has been intensely centered on the immediate impacts of the State College Area School District's proposed budget cuts, and rightly so. Our collective character -- our community character -- is rooted so deeply in education, the idea of cutting back in that arena digs at our shared identity.

But in the intensity of this moment, I haven't heard much said lately about where our school finances will us find again next year, or even the year after that. If the schools have brighter days ahead, certainly they'll have to endure darker nights first, the fiscal forecasts suggest.

The pain unfolding right now, by all indications, seems to be the first of several budget-tightening chapters.

To their credit, district business administrator Jeffrey Ammerman and school-board member Richard Bartnik are among those who consistently repeat that message. The state-imposed Act I index, which sets the district's taxation parameters, will probably sink lower in 2012. This year, it's at 1.4 percent for the State College district -- meaning that the board can't raise taxes any higher than 1.4 percent unless it seeks voter approval at the ballot box, or uses a few very special exceptions granted by the state Department of Education.

Board members have already ruled out the referendum option this year. Use of special exceptions -- allowed in order to help pay for specific expenses, such as special education and pension obligations -- would still keep any SCASD overall tax increase below the five percent threshold in 2011-2012. The board hasn't yet decided whether it will use any of those exceptions for '11-'12, however.

Gov. Tom Corbett has hinted that the special exceptions could disappear in the coming years, a prospect that could restrict local school-funding options further.

But wait. There's more.

Adding to the fiscal complications: the ongoing financial weight of pension obligations; waning state and federal support; an aging school infrastructure; sluggish growth in assessed property value; and a Harrisburg political culture apparently hell-bent on siphoning more and more public tax dollars away for private schools.

Not to mention the district's active litigation against a Canadian bank. Or what appears as a near-complete failure in Harrisburg to rethink the way we fund our public schools, to make it more equitable and less burdensome on those with very fixed incomes.

Consider all these elements taken together, and you get a stronger and stronger feeling that we'd better brace for upheaval throughout the foreseeable future, not just for '11-'12.

Of course, that's no consolation for the immediate future. But bearing the longer-term picture in mind -- it casts a different light on this fight.

This isn't a one-time battle. More and more, this is looking like a war over the future of our public-education system.

The circumstances inspiring the new-found outrage in our insulated valley are not, in fact, entirely new. They're just new to us. And they're becoming more pervasive across the state, across the country.

The more that people realize the totality of this thing, and the clear implications it bears -- well, perhaps they'll exercise greater political muscle to change the tide, alter its course and undermine its apparent inevitability.

If they can do that, maybe the inevitable scaling-back of public education won't be so inevitable, after all.

It's a nice thought, anyway.

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