Monday, September 24, 2012

It's not rocket science

A recurring theme of this blog has been … “Successful education, broadly defined as the preparation of our children to compete in the world, is dependent on three systems: Family, Community, and School.” All three of these elements of successful education are facing unprecedented financial challenges, with many facing huge deficits. The sooner we realize that there are no easy answers, the sooner we can start to look for long-term solutions. Viable options will not require rocket science, as some would have us believe, but will require an honest assessment of options. Reversing deficits will require either additional income or lower expenses or a combination of both.

Family. By and large, family income is earned through employment, and the current state of our economy has hit families hard. Across the country, in almost every demographic, Americans earn less today than they did 3 years ago. Since 2009, median household income has dropped 4.8 or about $2,500, and many families in Delaware County have been hit much harder. Many of our neighbors are having trouble making ends meet, and are not in a position to pay any additional taxes.

Community. 26 cities across the commonwealth that are stuck in the state's Act 47 program for financially strapped municipalities. These cities include: Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Reading, Scranton as well as Chester and Millbourne here in Delaware County. Many more cities are likely to join them in the near future. The Pennsylvania Public Employee Retirement Commission reported last year that local government pension plans owe more than $7 billion in unfunded liabilities. Cities across the state are struggling to keep their pension funds solvent and make required payments to retirees.

Schools. After months of anxiety about local school districts budgets and what budget items could be pared, schools are back in session. However the educational funding crisis is far from over. Local school districts did what they had to do to open the schools get the kids back in the classrooms, but the really hard decisions were not made. Educating our children is a very labor-intensive proposition. Personnel costs (salaries and benefits) account for about 70% of most school district budgets. Maintaining buildings, transportation, utilities, books, computers and consumable supplies are about 20% with the remainder paying off loans incurred to build the schools. Projected taxpayer contributions for the Public School Education Retirement System and the State Employees Retirement System will increase from $1.7 billion in 2011-12 to more than $6.2 billion in 2016-17—a 263% increase. The increase breaks down to more than $1,050 in additional tax payments per household/homeowner.

With the current local economies being what they are, the logical direction would seem to demand that cities and school districts cut their spending. Raising taxes and borrowing more money will only exacerbate the problem. Real solutions will require the state legislature and local officials to work together and change state laws to give municipalities the ability to control unaffordable and unsustainable personnel costs. Rather than voting for a candidate based on his or her party, we should make sure that our elected leaders are willing to roll up their sleeves and make the hard decisions that we need.  That's the all important first step towards educational success.

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