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Copyright © 2010 The Morning Call

ID: 4613246
Publication Date: June 7, 2010
Day: Monday
Page: A1
Edition: FIRST
Section: News
Type: Local
Dateline:
Column:
Length: long

Byline: Christopher Baxter OF THE MORNING CALL

Headline: Money is tight, but don't tell the state **School districts can't
cut teachers for financial reasons, but find other ways.

When Easton Area Superintendent Susan McGinley read each of the 84


job cuts at a public meeting in April, she noted the district's bleak financial
future and called the decision "fiscally responsible."

But when she asked the state to approve the cuts, which will result in
teachers and staffers losing their jobs, she said nothing about the need to
stem the rising cost of contracted salaries and benefits.

She couldn't. That would be illegal.

A rule etched into the decades-old Pennsylvania School Code bars districts
from laying off teachers for financial reasons. So McGinley told the state
the 73 teaching jobs are being cut to "support our goal of enhanced
opportunities for improved student performance."

"There's a paradox there," said Kevin Deely, head of the Easton teachers
union. "You can't cut for economic reasons, but obviously this is an
economic reason."

Faced with some of the toughest budget decisions in recent history,


Pennsylvania school districts are trimming jobs and programs to balance
their ledgers. But the argument they make to the state, which must approve
the cuts, is often different from the one they make to the public.
Unable to cite budget troubles, dozens of school districts have applied to
the Department of Education to change programs and eliminate jobs for
one of the two reasons allowed under the School Code: declining
enrollment, or the need to better meet state guidelines.

And for the most part, they have been successful.

The state received 35 requests for the 2009-10 school year, and has logged
44 requests so far for the 2010-11 school year, said Leah Harris,
spokeswoman for the department. Of the 79 applications, two have been
denied, Harris said.

The few rejections suggest the state has been reluctant to meddle in local
financial affairs, and that most districts that want to make cuts can meet
one of the School Code's benchmarks.

If this year's batch of requests is approved, hundreds of teaching jobs will


be lost next school year, according to applications submitted as of May 20.
The requests were obtained by The Morning Call under the state's Right to
Know Law.

"It's absurd that school districts jump through legislative hoops to pretend
they're not [cutting for financial reasons] when they really are," said James
Broussard, head of Citizens Against Higher Taxes, a statewide advocacy
group.

Hundreds more secretaries, custodians, maintenance workers and other


staff employees may also lose their jobs, which districts can cut without
state approval and for financial reasons.

Most, like Thomas Persing, acting superintendent of Bethlehem Area


School District, agree with the intent of the School Code rules, meant to
keep school boards or superintendents from arbitrarily slashing programs
and teachers.

But Persing and others argue the provisions are outdated. Burdened by
unfunded state and federal mandates, which in many cases have led to
more employees and higher costs, district officials argue they should be
able to cut back when needed.

"When you put all that together, frankly, you're almost at wits' end,"
Persing said. " You want to be legal, ethical, moral. But by the same token,
in the current fiscal situation we're in, the Legislature is going to have to
look at this seriously."

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is lobbying for districts to be


able to lay off for financial reasons. Attorney Sean Fields said most school
districts making cuts are motivated at least in part by financial pressure.

The law's supporters, notably state and local teachers unions, say it's an
important safeguard against school boards whose elected members would
rather trash programs than raise taxes.

"Instead of trying to get around what the law says, we should be looking at
how we fund our schools," said Michael Crossey, vice president of the
Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Easton's Deely said he is concerned about the effectiveness of the rules.

"I'm hopeful the state will look more closely at a lot of these requests this
year," he said.

Among the applications pending before the state:

The Mountain View School District in Susquehanna County proposes


eliminating 13 positions in English, music, business technology, art,
Spanish, French, Latin, social studies and kindergarten.

The Newport School District in Perry County wants to drop 12 employees


in elementary education, high school English, music and technology
education.

Locally, the Easton Area, Northampton Area, Bangor Area and Bethlehem
Area school districts plan to reduce or eliminate programs for a
cwombined loss of 174 jobs.

Most of the applications to the state make no reference to financial


troubles, despite widespread agreement that Pennsylvania districts face
some of the hardest economic times in recent history.

The Daniel Boone Area School District in Berks County wants to


eliminate its full-day kindergarten program and return to half-day classes,
cutting five jobs, according to its application to the state.

To meet the School Code, the district stated the changes would result "in a
more efficient and effective educational program." But unlike most other
applications, it gives another reason.

"The school district is currently faced with a severe financial crisis and a
substantial projected budget deficit," which led to a review of all the
district's programs to find savings, the letter states.
State approval is pending.

christopher.baxter@mcall.com

610-778-2283