A costly conversation

Bensalem Township School District hosts town hall on budget and finance

Talking numbers: Bensalem Township School District Superintendent Dr. Sam Lee was present during a recent public town hall meeting on budget and finance. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

Jordan Allen, a special education teacher at Benjamin Rush Elementary School, didn’t mince words last Tuesday evening during a public town hall meeting on budget and finance, hosted by the Bensalem Township School District. Allen bluntly explained how, despite a need, Bensalem receives less state funding than other areas – a regular theme for districts with a diverse population.

“We are the worst in terms of inequitable spending for people in the United States. There’s a clear pattern of racial bias in how Pennsylvania distributes these funds,” he said, stating how predominantly white districts receive $2,200 more each year than diverse districts. “For the 2019-2020 school year, we are underfunded. We got $9.7 million less than we should have based on our need.”

This idea of fair funding, or lack thereof, was the common thread of the town hall, which took place at Bensalem High School’s North Wing Audion.

Joining the meeting remotely via video chat was Susan Spika, executive director of Educations Voters of PA, a public education advocacy organization.

“When it comes to education, money makes a difference. Money pays for smaller class sizes, it pays to recruit and retain the best teachers, pays to provide students with a lot of options so they can find the path that works best for them,” Spika said. “We have a problem in Pennsylvania where the share of state funding in public education is just way too low.”

According to Spika, Pennsylvania is almost at the bottom of the spectrum regarding the amount of funding states give to public education. Still, districts are expected to have their students meet certain standards.

“They need to be funded adequately so that every school has all the programs that all the children need to learn what we expect them to learn,” she said, adding that $3.2 billion more is needed in order for this to be a reality.

From 2010 to 2017, districts saw a $4.7 billion increase in mandated expenditures for pensions, special education and charter schools, with the state revenue increasing only $2.24 billion. Districts have had to raise the difference on their own through property taxes. In 2017-2018, Bensalem spent $16 million on charter schools.

Spika brought attendees’ attention to what she said are unfair profits charter schools are enjoying. While a district school receives $15,000 for a special education student, she said, charter schools may get anywhere from $15,000 to $48,000, and are overpaid for students who require fewer services.

Basically, Spika said it’s an incentive for charter schools to enroll special education students who need minimal support (such as speech therapy for 30 minutes once a week). The school, she said, will receive more funding than needed, and will ultimately make a profit. Meanwhile, public schools are struggling to fund special services for students who desperately need them.

“The time of charter school reform is now. There is a statewide movement that has been building,” she said. “We’re seeing massive waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Allen is part of this movement, and has been meeting with politicians in Harrisburg for the past two years. Currently, he’s helped garner 63 cosponsors for House Bill 961, which would put 100 percent of state-based education funds through a formula that determines true need.

“I’m calling for this district and community to rise up and fight for fair funding. We have $10 million a year to gain if this is passed. We’re at the tipping point with 63 cosponsors. To not do so would mean we’re complicit with the status quo, thus undermining the educational opportunities and well beings of our students,” he said.

The bill requires 102 votes to pass the House. Attendees then heard from John Steffy, director of business operations, who shared details on how the district’s budget has changed over the past 20 years. In 2000-2001, $1.2 million (or 1.6 percent of the budget) was spent on charter schools. Last year, that amount jumped to $15,937,000 (10.5 percent).

Steffy said the mandated costs associated with charter schools, special education, pension and PSERS (Public School Employees’ Retirement System) are “killing public education.”

School board member Stephanie Ferrandez stressed that while the district wants to educate all children, including special needs, it’s not reimbursed for many of these costs. As for PSERS and pensions, she clarified that the money isn’t helping teachers go on lavish vacations.

“Some time ago, the state underfunded and then the locals started having to make this up,” she said.

Another statistic provided by Steffy was that in 2000-2001, the district spent $31,187,427 (40.32 percent) on regular education. Last year, 24.68 percent of the budget was allocated to this. If money was spent in the same manner, an additional $24,920,929 would be going into the classroom. Instead it’s going toward PSERS, charter schools and special education.

“It’s staggering how money is being siphoned off from everything except these three cost centers,” he said.

However, in Steffy’s opinion, it’s not all “doom and gloom.” While fiscal pressures in special education continue to rise exponentially each year, charter school costs are expected to increase at a slower rate.

District Superintendent Dr. Sam Lee drove home the importance of the district, which has nearly 6,500 students, to the township.

“We are the second-largest economic engine in Bensalem Township behind Parx Casino. We are a massive operation, with everyone committed to helping students achieve success. That’s what we pull for. That’s what gets us up every day,” he said. “But we’re at a crossroads. We’ve been at a crossroads now where these cost centers have a potential to impact the quality of education our kids receive.” ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com