During the Huntingdon Area School Board’s monthly workshop meeting Monday evening, district superintendent Jennifer Mitchell discussed some of the budget issues that the district faced, namely from charter schools.
While attending the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) conference, Mitchell became more aware of how charter schools affect the district’s budget.
At the conference, Dr. Matthew Kelly from Penn State discussed the impact charter schools have on budgets. From the research he did, he found that HASD was one of the top 10 rural schools to be impacted in the 2019-20 school year.
“This is out of 196 school districts,” Mitchell said. “He said data for the next year would be available soon and that he will keep me updated on it.”
In part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said more students have been choosing charter schools. However, funding for this has not been helpful.
“The state’s subsidies have not increased despite more students choosing to go to charter school,” Mitchell said. “This has caused a huge gap.”
Due to this, $3 million of the district’s $34 million operating budget goes towards charter school tuition.
Covering a student’s charter school tuition is as much as 50% more than if the student was learning in the district.
“The fact that it’s a 2:1 ratio is insane,” board member Dr. Dennis Plane said.
Mitchell pointed out there is both an elementary and high school option in the Huntingdon area that district students can attend.
“This might be one of the reasons we are so impacted by this,” Mitchell said. “People don’t understand how hard it has been on us.”
One of the items the board reviewed in preparation for its voting meeting next week was a renewal with New Day Charter School for 2023 through 2028. Plane asked if this is something the district has to renew.
“As long as they meet all of the criteria that is required of them, then we don’t have a choice,” Mitchell said. “They just need to provide us with the data asked of them, no matter what it says or what their improvement plan shows.”
Another thing Mitchell brought to the attention of the board is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. She presented the board with a basic look at what the funding entails and what it has covered.
“The ESSER funds are federal money and are a one-time thing,” she said. “So when we allocate the money, we need to make sure we are using it to our best benefit.”
She said that concerned individuals have asked her why the district needs to increase taxes or has a budget deficit if they have this funding. Because the money is federal, there are specific criteria in which they can be allocated.
ESSER I funds, which were expended during the 202-21 school year, went towards things that would help amid the pandemic, such as sanitization and cleaning staff.
ESSER II funding is going towards curriculum materials that would be otherwise costly, including the new math resource for K-8. It also helps cover summer school costs, something with which the American Rescue Plan (ARP) ESSER also helps.
“In the end, ESSER funds have helped us in keeping our deficit less than $1 million,” Mitchell said. “So that’s why we need to keep mindful of what we do when that money goes away.”
The district’s business manager Matt Gibson will present a final preliminary budget to the board at their monthly voting session next Monday, May 16.
He will present them with information options that include a tax increase of 2.25% or 4.5%, as well as no tax increase.
“We don’t like having to raise taxes, but the way that Pennsylvania relies on property taxes and the unfair funding rural schools get, it’s a choice we end up making a lot,” Mitchell said.
Because of this, she said Election Day Tuesday, May 17, is important.
“We need to make sure those in the legislature understand the difficulty rural schools face,” she said. “The right people may be able to help us improve funding.”