The Panther Valley School District was facing tough decisions last year to balance its budget: Should it cut its entire art program, or music? What about letting go of more of its sports teams, having already dropped wrestling and cross-country?
Instead, the rural district, which enrolls 1,800 students from Carbon and Schuylkill Counties, used federal pandemic aid to plug its budget hole. The state had warned against using the one-time money on recurring expenses, said Superintendent David McAndrew, but it was the only option to preserve the programs.
“When I say we’re broke, we’re broke,” McAndrew said Monday, testifying as the first witness in a historic trial over how Pennsylvania pays for public education.
McAndrew’s district is one of six suing the state, alleging that school funding is inadequate and inequitable and calling on the state to direct more money to poorer districts, which face wide gaps in spending and achievement compared with wealthier communities. Lawyers for Republican lawmakers say that the gaps aren’t unconstitutional and that the state isn’t depriving children of adequate educations.
Taking the stand in front of Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer in Harrisburg, McAndrew highlighted the challenges faced by some of the state’s rural districts with weak property tax bases. Though Panther Valley’s tax rate is the 10th-highest in Pennsylvania, it ranks in the bottom half of districts for how much money it can spend per pupil. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say it actually ranks in the bottom 20%, using a state formula that assigns greater weight to districts with needier student populations.
While a lawyer for House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) had argued that Panther Valley and the other suing districts had the “basic instrumentalities” of education — “chairs to sit in, desks or tables to write at, walls and roofs, working plumbing,” the lawyer, Patrick Northen, said during Friday’s openings — McAndrew said Monday that wasn’t an accurate characterization.
“I was appalled a little bit by hearing that, because so much more goes into education,” McAndrew said. “But sometimes we don’t even have that.” For instance, the district has 75 kindergartners sharing a bathroom, and roof leaks and flooding issues that require it to run an outdoor pump every time it rains.
But those facilities issues don’t touch what else the district needs to properly educate students, including more staff, McAndrew said. Class sizes are large, he said, with 29 students in a kindergarten class — and no paraprofessional to assist the lone teacher. He described walking into one seventh-grade class with 37 students, sharing six to eight microscopes during a science lesson.
“I care about these kids a lot. And I see the opportunities they’re not getting. And it’s not fair,” said McAndrew, who began crying while describing how the district struggles with resources.
Later, he said: “I’m asking the state of Pennsylvania to help us. Who else is there to ask? We can’t keep asking our local taxpayers. We can’t ask our teachers to work for free. ... We need a revenue source to give these kids an education. That’s what the constitution says we should have. And we’re not meeting it right now.”
During cross-examination late Monday, a lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman played videos produced by Panther Valley administrators walking through empty school buildings to show students what to expect when the year began. While the videos showed gleaming floors and tidy classrooms, McAndrew said that they didn’t fully depict the building conditions and that before the start of school is “when our facilities are at our cleanest.”
Corman’s lawyer, Thomas DeCesar, also rattled through a list of courses offered by the district’s high school, including Advanced Placement and other classes like Monsters in Literature or Introduction to Music Theory. McAndrew tried to emphasize how the district had to differentiate instruction because “a lot of our students are so far behind.”
A former coal-mining community, Panther Valley is poor, McAndrew said. The state lists 56% of district students as economically disadvantaged, but McAndrew believes the figure is closer to 70% based on what he sees in the community.
He anticipates its financial challenges may only grow worse. The community’s largest employer, which has 400 workers, is relocating its plant to Florida, McAndrew said. Another that has donated to local schools just changed leadership.
With its limited and already strapped tax base, the district can’t rely on local revenue, McAndrew said. He said a friend of his just lost her house after not being able to pay her taxes.
“Do you want kids to have an art education, or do you want to tax people out of their house?” he said. “That’s the tough decision people want us to make.”
The district has trouble attracting staff because it pays less than other area districts — with the starting teacher salary under $38,000 — and because those districts have more resources, McAndrew said: “It’s a morale issue.”
Panther Valley students score below average on state assessments, McAndrew said, and education was further hindered by the pandemic. Unlike more affluent districts, Panther Valley didn’t have computers or other devices for every student, and needed to wait for federal aid before it could afford to buy them, McAndrew said.
Pushing back on assertions by lawyers for Republican legislative leaders last week that health and social services weren’t required by the state constitution’s promise of a “thorough and efficient” education system, McAndrew said that social-emotional supports were an “absolute part” of an adequate education. His district, like others, is required to evaluate students with academic or behavioral challenges; with one psychologist, it is tapping its elementary school principal, a former school psychologist, to also perform evaluations — “just to stay compliant,” McAndrew said.
McAndrew is expected to take the stand again Tuesday. The trial is expected to last eight to 10 weeks, with witnesses including staff from the other plaintiff districts — among them William Penn in Delaware County — parents, including from Philadelphia, and experts on school funding and student achievement.