The new math for public schools: Pensions, charter schools, salaries, more drive up budgets

Increases in pension fund payments, charter school expenses and salaries are driving up school budgets across the region.

In response, some school districts say they have been forced to cut classroom supplies, increase property taxes or leave positions unfilled.

In Steel Valley schools, for example, the 2016-17 budget of $34.8 million is over $3 million larger than the year prior.

John Zenone, the district’s business manager, said the budget increase is “due to three major cost drivers — number one being charter schools, two being the … pension plan, and the third is salary increases. Between the three, it’s moving the budget higher.”

The budget hike has caused taxes in the district to go up for the first time in a number of years, Mr. Zenone said. Homeowners with a property valued at $100,000 will pay $70 more next year.

A survey released last month by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials noted that mandated costs for districts statewide continue to rise.

Of the 355 districts that participated in the survey, all projected an increase in mandated expenses for pensions, and most noted increasing costs for special education and charter school payments.

“More districts are planning local tax hikes, borrowing funds, dipping into fund balances, and delaying payments to vendors. Most importantly, the number of districts projecting cuts to staff (46 percent), increases in class size (34 percent) and cuts to educational programs (50 percent) continue to rise,” the survey stated.

The increased costs tend to push more of the funding burden onto the local communities.

The Sto-Rox School District budget for 2016-17 increased by $900,949 over the previous year to $24.1 million.

One of the largest increases in the budget has come from teacher salary raises. The most recent contract with Sto-Rox teachers was negotiated three years ago. “Our teachers haven’t had a raise in three years,” business manager Jacky Hardiman said.

Sto-Rox also has had an increase in charter school payments and new transportation costs associated with charter schools. To balance the budget, classroom supplies have been cut “on every level,” Ms. Hardiman said.

The McKeesport Area School District also has experienced similar budget increases to the tune of $3.1 million.

According to a McKeesport Area budget report, the most significant cost increase was for debt service payments, which grew by $2.3 million over last year. Retirement contributions also contributed to the overall budget spike — the rate grew from 25.84 percent to 30.03 percent.

At the same time, total budgeted staff salaries in McKeesport Area schools fell by $354,468.

In Mt. Lebanon, taxes will increase by $38 for every $100,000 of assessed property value next year as a result of the school district’s overall budget growth. Health care costs and contributions and contract negotiations with staff have been the primary forces driving expenditures up, according to the district’s website.

The story is no different in the Fox Chapel Area School District, where the budget grew by $918,000 over last year to almost $100 million.

Fox Chapel Area schools saw over $4.1 million in retirement contributions over the previous year and, as in Sto-Rox, other portions of the budget have been cut accordingly. For instance, Fox Chapel Area is not replacing eight teachers who retired at the end of this school year.

Residents of the Fox Chapel Area School District saw an tax increase of $35 for every $100,000 of assessed property value.

North Allegheny School District’s budget includes no tax increases, no layoffs and no cuts to programming, according to Mary Marous of the district’s office of communications and development. District officials said they had a surplus of funds from last year, combined with decreased debt service payments and taxes from commercial and residential growth in the district.