By Evan Brandt
No active school district in Montgomery County will lose more state funding per student under Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget plan than Pottstown.
And no district will lose less state funding per student than Lower Merion.
As anyone familiar with both communities well knows, the dissimilarities between the two school districts do not end there.
But they are starkly illustrative of the disparities inherent in Pennsylvania’s system of school funding, a system that ties student achievement and opportunity to zip code.
According to an analysis of Corbett’s budget proposal by Good Schools Pennsylvania, each Pottstown School District student will get $609 less in state funding under the plan. Each classroom in the district will lose more than $15,000 in state funding.
At the other end of the spectrum, each Lower Merion student will lose only $83.81 — or $2,095 per classroom — under Corbett’s plan.
In Pottstown, Corbett’s budget means a loss in state funding of $3.1 million out of a $53.3 million budget proposal. Having anticipated some cuts, the gap the school board must close is closer to $2.7 million.
In Lower Merion, Corbett’s budget translates into a loss of about $1.4 million out of a $204.7 million budget, according to Doug Young, district community relations director.
Looked at another way, Corbett’s proposal would slice 5 percent off the proposed school budget in a community where the median household income is less than $36,000, but shaves just over one-half of 1 percent from the school budget where the median household income is nearly $110,000 — three times higher.
“I do consider it very unfair,” said Michele Pargeon, a Pottstown School Board member who moved to Pottstown from Lower Merion and who, as the board’s liaison for legislative affairs, is steeped in the mysteries of Pennsylvania education funding.
“It’s so frustrating sometimes; I feel like we keep running up against a brick wall,” Pargeon said of the uneven manner in which Pennsylvania’s wealthiest communities can spend more on the education of their children than poorer towns like Pottstown.
“I grew up in Radnor and my eldest daughter went to Lower Merion schools, I know what a Lower Merion education looks like,” Pargeon said Wednesday.
According to Lower Merion’s website, it looks pretty good.
The district’s description of itself includes mention of “extended day care; early-intervention literacy support; a full menu of high school honors and AP courses; and an extensive range of course offerings in core areas, music and the arts, technology and special subjects.”
Those include “the district’s world languages program” which “enables all students to receive uninterrupted foreign language instruction from second grade until the time they graduate from high school.”
But that’s not all.
In Lower Merion, students can access “more than 500 supervised academic, athletic, community outreach and performance-oriented co-curricular programs.”
And in addition to “one of the lowest class size averages in Pennsylvania,” about 21 students, “the district offers one of the highest salaries and best benefits packages in Pennsylvania” for teachers and staff.
Its facilities are pretty nice, too.
While Pottstown struggles to figure out how it can pay to modernize its five elementary schools, Lower Merion “completed the final phase of an extensive 12-year capital improvement program with the opening of the new Lower Merion High School in 2010. All 10 of the district’s schools have been completely modernized to serve the needs of 21st century education,” according to the website.
Young confirmed that the district has built two completely new high schools, although only the Lower Merion building has a pool.
“We were really fortunate that the bulk of the financing for our capital program was settled prior to the recent economic downturn,” said Young.
“Moving forward, we recognize it may be challenging for districts to finance many of their capital projects,” he said.
Those schools include “state of the art science laboratories, an 850-seat auditorium, a multi-purpose black-box theater, a greenhouse for environmental and horticultural studies, television studios, a musical instrument digital interface lab” and even “a lecture hall with tiered seating to help prepare students for the college environment.”
Young said Lower Merion’s administration would have to “get creative” to make up the .68 percent cut from Corbett’s budget.
But that creativity will not include eliminating any of the 500 co-curricular programs, or any art, music or other programs that districts like Pottstown, Pottsgrove and Boyertown are glumly examining.
“We made a commitment not to cut any programs,” Young said.
As it turns out, Young said, the $927,000 the district would lose under Corbett’s budget may be made up “in our technology budget;” or from the district’s reserve cash; or from the real estate transfer taxes “which have been a little bit more robust than we expected.”
By contrast, in Pottstown, a teacher in the gifted program, a social studies teacher, a business teacher are all on the chopping block, along with cuts to music, art and libraries.
Although there are many homes for sale in Pottstown, no one is anticipating “robust” sales to fill budget gaps.
At its core, of course, the disparity has to do with the fact that a cut in state aid doesn’t affect Lower Merion because it doesn’t need it as much.
According to Lower Merion’s website, fully 87 percent of its budget is funded by local tax revenue, the state making up just 9 percent of its revenue. The mansions and high-end real estate in the district generate $165.8 million in property taxes.
With a median household assessment of $250,000, the proposed 23.0270 millage will easily generate the $5,757 in taxes a median household will pay in Lower Merion next year.
In Pottstown, by contrast, the median assessment has hovered near $75,000 for years, so a higher proposed millage — at 36.8232, the seventh highest in the state — is needed to generate even half as much revenue, about $2,732.
Because that diminished tax base can generate only 60 percent of Pottstown’s proposed budget, more than 36 percent comes from state sources. Cutting those sources takes a bigger bite out of a smaller budget.
The Pottstown-Lower Merion example highlights the disparity inherent in a system dependent on local property values, notes the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign, an umbrella advocacy group of more than 30 organizations lobbying for school funding fairness.
Not only does the system result in poor districts having less to spend per student, ir also results in heavier property taxes in communities with the least ability to pay them.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand it,” said Pargeon, of the effect of funding disparity. “They think you’re just asking for more money to throw at education.”
But what educators in poorer districts are really asking for, is for the state to level the playing field, the one spelled out in the Pennsylvania Constitution which reads: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
Neither the terms “thorough” or “efficient” come to mind when comparing districts like Pottstown and Lower Merion, fairness advocates argue.
“I’ve seen with my own eyes, everything in Lower Merion that our kids don’t have,” Pargeon said. “Our kids need those educational opportunities as much as the Main Line kids, probably more when you consider the disadvantages they start off with.”
After all, she said, for kids in Pottstown, where more than half the students qualify for the free and reduced lunch due to poverty at home, “education is probably their only chance for a future that breaks the mold.”