PA's rural schools are at a precipice

Otto-Eldred School District Superintendent Matthew Splain at the high school – Photo by Ryan Briggs

Otto-Eldred School District Superintendent Matthew Splain at the high school – Photo by Ryan Briggs

Along the maze of state roads that wind through Pennsylvania’s remote Northern Tier, wildflowers are blooming white and purple, and the canopy of trees glows verdant across the folds of endless rolling hills. On Route 6, the main road into Potter County, a wooden sign proclaims, “Welcome to Potter County: God’s Country.”

To the seasonal tourists and anglers, it must seem to be so. But behind this idyllic facade, God’s country is dying. 

“The economic base is pretty poor here, so we lose all our best people,” says Jerry Sasala, superintendent of Austin Area School District. “A lot of retired people move in because the land is so cheap, but it’s not putting money in the economy. Everything is being hollowed out. We’re killing ourselves just to try and keep the schools up.”

Sasala’s class size is down 20 percent from a decade ago, mirroring the county’s flagging birth rate. His special education costs are way up, in backwards lockstep with a faltering local economy – 42 percent of his students come from families living near the federal poverty line. It’s a district where fracking wells, once viewed as an economic boon, now sit idle, victims of cratering petroleum prices. Longtime factory employers have shuttered – the  Piper Aircraft factory down the road from Austin was long ago converted into a state prison. Drug overdose rates in the county have doubled over the last 10 years.

But the problems in this remote school district are easy for outsiders to ignore, as might be expected for the commonwealth’s smallest school district, which graduated just 12 students this year. 

It’s the evening before the last day of school and Sasala stands inside the school’s gymnasium, where 200 empty folding chairs are arranged in identical rows. This is the home of the Austin Panthers – the school’s basketball team and its last remaining boy’s athletics program – but the auditorium is empty, for now. 

With only a dozen seniors graduating this year, I ask who all the chairs are for.

“The whole town likes to come out for the graduation,” Sasala says confidently. “There’s not much to do around here. The school is the center of the community.”

That may not be true for much longer, depending on the outcome of state budget talks at the end of this month. Strangled by mounting retirement payouts and cyber charter costs, but burdened with few viable revenue options, the kids that graduate this year could be the last class to pass through Austin’s halls. Even with a smaller number of children to educate, many rural districts across the state are saddled with fixed costs, like building upkeep or the fact that a school must have at least one algebra teacher.

Sasala has a thick brown beard and wears hiking shoes to work, and runs a cattle ranch down the road. He came out of retirement years ago after the last superintendent left. As we walk the halls of the empty high school – which also doubles as the elementary school – he says he thinks they might be able to eke out another year, but they’ve already cut advanced placement courses and repeatedly consolidated staff.

“What that looks like for us as administration is, we have dual roles,” he explains. “Our elementary principal is the guidance counselor and curriculum director. I’m the superintendent and the high school principal. Everybody is doing more than one thing.”

The changes may be more acute here, but the same is true for many of Pennsylvania’s 174 rural school districts. Much like the crippling funding shortages in urban areas, a recent Public Interest Law Center report estimated rural districts are short about half a billion dollars in state funding.

But the crisis faced by Austin and other backcountry districts is also a story of shifting demographics. While Pennsylvania’s cities are growing, the population in nearly every rural county has fallen, according to the most recent census estimates. Just 20 out of 67 counties gained population over the last five years; nearly all were primarily urban or suburban. 

Abandoned and derelict homes like this one are driving down property values – and thus tax revenue – at a time when the Potter County School District can ill afford it. Photo by Ryan Briggs

In Potter County, people are moving out, people are dying and property values are stagnant – the median home price in the region is $95,000, half the national average. The young people that graduate don’t stick around, their sights set on more economically prosperous places, and the retirees that replace them are averse to paying more taxes for schools they’ll never use. The youngest generations are harder to teach, as classes become increasingly composed of the poorer families who couldn’t get out. Homelessness, once nearly unheard of, is rising.

District officials in Potter County say they feel like the rest of the state has forgotten about their remote corner of Pennsylvania.

“They really don’t get it,” said Northern Potter School District superintendent Scott Graham. “We’re closer to Toronto than Philadelphia. Buffalo is the closest big city. We always have to go to Harrisburg because they never come up here, so you’re driving eight hours for a three-hour meeting. I don’t think people from affluent areas really know what we’re going through.”

Pennsylvania’s educational funding crisis is frequently perceived as an exclusively urban issue, in part because of the remoteness of districts like Austin and Northern Potter, and because rural schools suffer from fewer student disciplinary issues. But the scale of the issue is immense, rivaling the crises in some large urban districts when taken as a whole.

According to data compiled by the Public Interest Law Center, at least 174 of the 500 school districts in the commonwealth are almost entirely rural in character, accounting for some $4.8 billion in state funding annually and some 317,000 pupils.

Ninety-five of those districts – with about 117,000 students – relied on the state for half to three-quarters of their annual budget, more than even Philadelphia’s famously troubled district. The state pays an average of $9,000 per student to these severely distressed districts – nearly one-third more than the average student in an urban district. 

And yet it is still not enough. PILC estimates that rural districts are suffering through a state funding shortfall of between $440 million and $592 million. A report released this month by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators indicated that 75 percent of all school districts in the state planned to raise taxes to cover operating deficits this year, and half planned to cut staff positions.

Graham guesses that number is closer to 100 percent for rural districts.

“I don’t know how every other rural district isn’t running a deficit right now.” he adds.

While education policy is often complicated, Graham says his district’s funding problem is easy to understand.

“Since 2007, our budget has gone up 8 percent, but our revenues have only gone up 4.5 percent – our salary line item is lower than it was in 2004,” he says, emphasizing that he is now paying out more money for fewer teachers.

Graham said rising pension and health care costs, increasing special education costs and cyber charter expenses were driving the increase. His district, nestled between rolling farmland and scattered Amish communities, is heading into the next fiscal year with a nearly $500,000 hole in its $9.2 million budget.

Today is the last day of school. It’s a beautiful day outside, and Graham has just finished grilling hot dogs with his graduates, an annual tradition at Northern Potter. But as he recounts grim financial statistics inside a barren conference room, his smile fades.

“A million dollars is health care. A million dollars for retirement. You look at salaries and then it’s like, ‘Do you have any money left for classrooms?’ We eliminated 15 jobs out of 50 over past 10 years,” he says. “I don’t know if I have a solution out there. It would be different if I could see an end to it. But there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

At times, Graham seems on the verge of tears. But his assessment of the situation is not inaccurate. Many rural schools no longer have a budget for classroom supplies or textbooks. While every school has had to cope with increasing state-mandated contributions to the Pennsylvania Schools Retirement System and increased health care costs, rural districts are feeling these shifts more dramatically and have less ability to cope.

“It’s a drain on all districts, but it’s a particular drain on rural schools – it’s economy of scale,” said Joe Bard, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. “In the end, the effect is multiplied in a rural area.”

In other words, one or two seriously ill teachers can blow a hole in a school’s health care budget – and that’s exactly what’s happened, according to Graham.

The same is true of cyber charters, a scandal-plagued remote learning option. Rural districts are more likely to get cyber charter applications because of their sprawling geography, but also because they are more likely to have families that choose remote learning for religious reasons. And as rural districts grow poorer, their special ed costs have grown, too – almost doubling for Northern Potter, which has a 50 percent student poverty rate. The state only picks up half of those costs.

Graham says the dying local economy and a paradoxical lack of affordable rental units in an area with rock-bottom real estate prices is driving a pattern of increasingly transient families and three-generation households.

“There’s not a lot of affordable housing for people to rent,” he adds. “It’s just a reality of the number of buildings available. No one is looking to make an investment here. So people are moving in with their grandparents. We have several families that have been displaced. They’re coming back here because they can’t find work, so they’ve gotta move in with mom and dad and bring the grandkids with them. It’s supposed to be temporary, but it’s becoming more permanent.”

These districts are hamstrung by tiny budgets and minimal local revenue options. A state law passed in 2006, Act 1, requires voter approval for increases to school property taxes above an indexed rate. Graham says that he maxes out his Act 1 allotment each year, but that only generates about $50,000. In a highly conservative area, most administrators seem to assume a tax referendum, even to fund a beloved school, will fail.

The urgency of these converging forces, according to district officials interviewed across Potter and neighboring McKean County, does not seem to be felt in Harrisburg. State legislators are not expected to meet a June 30 budget deadline, an ill omen for districts that just weathered a nine-month budget impasse. Many schools took out commercial loans just to patch their budgets.

Graham’s school was one of them, and he fears his district will be stuck with an extortionate interest rate if it has to borrow again. He doesn’t see how this year won’t be worse than the last, even if Harrisburg passes $313 million in new educational spending proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

“If the legislature says, ‘We’ll give Wolf everything that he wants next year,’ I get 80 grand. That won’t even cover PSERS increases,” he said. “That’s the best-case scenario next year – unless somebody decides they want to put more in.”

That’s a long shot at this point. Wolf’s office admitted any true fix to the state schools crisis will take years to come to fruition.

“These issues are recognized widely by both parties in both houses; no party wants to go through another budget impasse, but we have a long way to go,” said Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan. “We need to tackle school pension reform, but there’s no pension bill out there that saves money now. It’s all going to take time.”

Graham says this attitude is frustrating – everyone claims to support schools, but nothing changes. I ask him what he thinks local legislators mean when they say they support education.

“I think it means that you say, ‘I support education,’” he says. “But there’s no backbone to it. The problem is that we have a revenue issue in this state and no one wants to raise taxes. Meanwhile, we’ve got all these huge increases in mandated costs. If the federal government or state says special education is mandatory, why are they only paying for half my special education bill?”

In Harrisburg, consolidation is being floated as a fix for shrinking rural districts, but it draws scoffs in Potter County, where 2,800 students are scattered across nearly 1,100 square miles. Many students already take transportation for roughly an hour each day, and the next-closest schools are anywhere from a few dozen to more than 50 miles away.

“There are three stoplights in the whole county, and two are in (the county seat),” said Graham. “Our district is 231 square miles of no stoplights. I have to travel 20 miles to go to the grocery store here. Schools are the center of town. When people cavalierly talk about closing schools in this part of the state, you’re talking about crushing a town.”

Bard said his group views consolidation as a buzzword, an easy answer to a problem where there isn’t one. He said the last round of school consolidations, in the 1960s, brought the number of districts down from 2,500 to 500, but produced hard-to-quantify fiscal benefits.

“There are still problems in a number of areas of the state because of those mergers,” he says. “They’re like broken bones that never heal. It’s like a panacea to many people that doesn’t deliver the goods. Everyone thinks it’s good – until they find out their local high school won’t have a football team.”

Graham also pointed to the example of Cameron County, another rural area that consolidated all its districts decades ago. Today, the 401-square-mile unified district runs a $300,000 deficit, comparable to similar schools in non-unified counties.

Many districts are praying for more state funding to emerge, like manna from heaven, and looking at canceling “secondary” classes that are probably not-so-secondary in struggling rural communities.

Otto-Eldred senior Trevor Carlson is dismayed by the cuts to technology and shop courses. Photo by Ryan Briggs

Otto-Eldred School District, in neighboring McKean County, has already jettisoned home economics, technology courses, numerous athletics programs and cut one of two shop teachers, to the dismay of senior Trevor Carlson.

“I’m more of a hands-on kind of guy,” he says, cracking a crooked smile. “I wouldn’t have gone to school otherwise.”

The superintendent of Carlson’s district, Matthew Splain, is standing next to Carlson and an array of jigsaws in the shop room, but he doesn’t react. Trevor’s joke has a lot of truth to it.

Even when the school had more shop classes and a technology program, many kids were unprepared for the grim local job market – an Ethan Allen furniture plant and a block glass plant were both recent casualties of rural deindustrialization. The schools themselves are frequently some of the largest local employers.

“You have less economic opportunity here when it comes to high-productive paying jobs,” explains Splain. “With oil and gas going downhill, that’s had an effect. The district is getting poorer. I grew up here 35 years ago, and it’s not the same. You’ve got substance-abuse issues now, situations where kids aren’t being raised properly. They’re being neglected.”

Splain’s high school doesn’t have a valedictorian; it has “mantle holders” from several fields of study, including industrial arts. It’s a big deal in an area where job options can amount to voluntary exile or, say, starting a welding business locally. 

Carlson is the industrial mantle holder this year, having completed his high school’s CAD drafting course. He’s headed to a welding program at Jamestown Community College, across the state line in New York. He’s supposed to symbolically “pass down” the mantle to a younger student in his program, but there weren’t enough shop classes this year for any juniors to complete the necessary courses.

“I’m passing the mantle down to a teacher,” he explains, to avoid being left out of the ceremony. “It would have been nice to pass it on to someone below me.”

The schools crisis is not lost on the county’s general population. The front page of the Endeavor, a tiny local newspaper, was covered with articles about deficits at local districts. At the New Plaza Diner, in Galeston, a circle of men in camo hats grumbled about perpetually rising taxes for teachers who only seem to work half the year. 

Talk easily turns to drug problems caused by ne’er-do-wells from distant downstate cities, illegal immigrants, lazy welfare recipients or even Chinese subversion – all essentially amount to unseen actors. But what other explanation is there? In many ways, little has changed in the Northern Tier in the past half-century – it lacks suburban sprawl, there are few chain stores, cell phone and internet service is intermittent, and the area has remained uniformly white. But at the same time, everything seems to have gotten worse.

When it comes to schools, the broader consensus is that cities like Philadelphia suck up all the funding. This belief is repeated by students like Carlson, and even the superintendents I spoke to. Regional politicians, like powerful Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, whose district includes Potter, McKeon and Cameron Counties, do little to dispel these notions.

“That’s what our local representatives say – that’s the story they tell us, that (Harrisburg is) trying to send all this money to Philadelphia,” said Graham.

But aside from a failed attempt by Wolf to restore funding to cities that was cut under the Corbett administration, this has never really been part of the political dynamic in the capital. In many ways, rural and urban schools are in the same boat, held hostage by a legislature terrified of raising taxes in an aging state with mounting government expenses. 

School advocates acknowledged and excoriated the tactic.

“It’s so easy to drum up anti-Philadelphia emotions in other places in the state,” said Bard. “It’s trying to get people to eat their young and divide public education against itself, which is a really stupid thing to do.”

Scarnati’s office didn’t directly comment on those assertions, except to say he was pleased Wolf dropped his plan to restore funding specifically cut in urban districts. While he added that he looked forward to working with the legislature on pension and charter school reform to realize educational cost savings, he stopped short of proposing new sources of revenue, like tax increases.

“While many rural schools could be helped by more funding for education, more money alone is not the complete answer,” he said in an email. “Schools need to have the ability to make some important reforms at the local level.”

Scarnati’s office proposed reviving a legislative bill designed to strip out union seniority protections for teachers, which Wolf vetoed earlier this year. But best guesses at the cost savings that could be realized by getting tough on unproductive teachers are in the low millions – a report on Philadelphia’s $2.8 billion-dollar budget found about $1.7 million lost to so-called “ghost teachers” – not the billions PILC estimates are needed.

Advocates like Bard say that the schools crisis cannot be fixed by efficiencies alone in a state that ranks 44th in education spending.

“When you start talking about more money or raising taxes to bring an increase in revenue, there is not political will,” he said. “People are concerned more about people’s tax concerns than funding education. But I also don’t think there is enough public support in rural areas to raise taxes to fund education.”

In one of the most Republican parts of Pennsylvania, even public school administrators are tinged by local conservatism. Sasala, from the Austin School District, personally struggles with the fact that he’s had to raise school taxes on his neighbors every year for the last five years. He says he feels like a victim of his own responsible budgeting during better fiscal years – he has little left to cut.

As we walk back to his office from the Panthers’ auditorium, Sasala confesses he’s not sure how he’ll budget another year. He has his sights set on convincing Scarnati to up the remittance Austin gets from the commonwealth for the state-owned land that takes up 80 percent of the district. The state pays just one-tenth of the revenue generated by privately held land – $1.25 per acre. Sasala wants to double that.

In an area where the perception of self-reliance is prized, Sasala doesn’t position this as begging the state for more funding. The land is sometimes leased by the state to oil, gas and mining concerns for a profit.

“We’re just asking for our fair share,” he says.

Scarnati says he’s on board, but passing the proposal is still a long shot. That money would still have to come from somewhere else in the state budget.

Next to Sasala’s cluttered desk, there’s a vintage photograph of the old Austin dam. Built in 1909, the dam was designed with 30-foot walls, but the paper mill that built it cut corners on construction materials and made the walls too thin. The dam burst three years later, wiping out old Austin and killing 78 residents. The ruins are just up the road from the school.

When asked about the photo, one of many office tchotchkes installed years ago and since forgotten, Sasala looks up, surprised. 

“That dam broke because they were trying to save money,” he says, considering the metaphor above his head. “What killed the town was cutting costs. I guess it’s like the dam all over again.”

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