Greater Johnstown Middle School

The Greater Johnstown school board voted Tuesday, June 6, 2017, to close the middle school at 280 Decker Ave.

HARRISBURG – Representatives of a group of school districts – including Greater Johnstown – are asking Commonwealth Court to reject the argument that a 2016 law solved any problems with inequitable funding of the state’s schools.

Ed Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Small and Rural Schools, said Monday that the 2016 law didn’t solve the problems experienced in many school districts. His group is one of the organizations involved in the lawsuit.

In court filings earlier this year, attorneys for Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati said that the 2016 measure spelling out a school funding formula addressed any shortcomings in the way the state funds schools.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014 by six families and six school districts, attacked the state’s school funding as it existed before the 2016 school funding formula, Scarnati said in court documents.

“This case, as pleaded, is therefore moot,” Scarnati argued in court documents.

School administrators can’t help but notice the disparities when they gather for regional meetings and listen to other district superintendents talk about their districts’ needs, Albert said.

For example, a superintendent in a poor district will listen to another administrator talk about all the technology his district has acquired while seeking expert help in planning the best way to use it.

“You’d think ‘Good for him,’ ” while recognizing that the poorer district won’t have those kinds of problems because they can’t afford to buy the new computer equipment, Albert said.

The new formula is only used to calculate how the state splits money added to the state budget for education spending after the law was passed, according to an analysis completed on behalf of the school districts suing the state.

The formula is factored into only about 1.4 percent of the money the state passes along to local school districts, said Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, who completed the school districts’ analysis.

The state’s increased spending on schools since 2016 has been more that consumed by local school district’s increased costs to cover pension bills, he said.

“Because of this, aggregate state funding available to school districts for classroom costs has effectively decreased by $155.3 million since 2013,” Price found.

Greater Johnstown had to close its middle school because it could not afford the extensive repairs required, Amy Arcurio, the district’s assistant superintendent, said.  

Last year alone, Greater Johnstown School District cut five teaching positions, bringing the total number of  teachers eliminated since the 2010-11 school year to 50, while the student population remained steady. 

Wilkes-Barre furloughed 37 teachers and 22 secretaries and paraprofessionals for the 2016-17 school year, according to court documents. The Lancaster School District has been unable to restore 100 teacher and administrative positions, as well as 15 librarians, that were eliminated after the 2011 budget cuts, court documents show.

Albert said he’s been responsible for trying to find other examples, to illustrate the ongoing pain being felt in local schools. 

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.