The $80 million question: How did Keystone Central get to this point?

The above question is being asked all over the Keystone Central School District as a citizen task force embarks on trying to find $10 million in budget cuts before the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

That’s when the district projects its expenses will hit $82.3 million, far too much for state and federal subsidies and local tax revenues to pay all the bills.

The budget crisis also is one reason why we believe the school board is seeing significant change — there will be three new board members come 2018, and possibly a fourth.

It also is partly why the current superintendent has decided to retire early.

Over the years, school board members — with recommendations by administrations — have made decisions with students’ best interests in mind.

Along the way, they’ve dealt with mandates like No Child Left Behind, Pennsylvania State System of Student Assessment (PSSA) tests (teaching to the test), Keystone Exams, Common Core, changing Title I policies, school choice, cyber schools, charter schools, volatile state subsidies and more.

While school board-negotiated contracts have allowed salaries, pension and benefit costs to surge, the district has seen a gradual decline in overall enrollment, but a growing number of both special education students and those classified as economically disadvantaged.

A rock and a hard place.

As federal and state subsidies have increased, combined with local property tax hikes, the district has poured money into new programs, higher starting pay for teachers, updated curriculum, a new Pre-K program and more to try to bring up test scores, stabilize enrollment and make for a quality education here.

Be assured, there have been good successes in Keystone: A jump in test scores at the secondary level is one.

But the time has come for change. The school district — the administration and the school board — is spending more money than it can afford. That’s why the task force has been developed.

Let’s be clear: Teaching is tougher today. Too many kids don’t have the support at home that they should to help them succeed, be responsible and become good learners. Society expects too much from schools and teachers.

We have no solutions for the current financial dilemmas Keystone is facing; hopefully, the task force will come forward with viable ideas after finding out just how much of a stronghold the state and federal governments have on the money they provide.

But we do have observations and information to share:

r Keystone Central’s costs for salaries, pension and benefits are far outpacing the district’s ability to generate more revenue to pay for them, and taxpayers’ ability to afford them. As a strategy to recruit the best teachers it can because, let’s face it, this area cannot compete with larger, urban-metropolitan districts to more easily attract those teachers, Keystone has offered and paid higher-than-average teacher salaries for a district its size for quite a few years now. Under the existing teachers’ contract, for example, a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree starts at $45,404. A doctorate degree tops out at $90,943. The median teacher’s salary in Keystone is $68,011, far above the state average.

r District costs for retirees’ pensions and benefits are astronomical, thanks to the state Legislature and union contracts. In the just completed 2016-2017 fiscal year, of Keystone’s $76.65 million budget, approximately $18,770,207 was allocated for pension and health-care costs to retirees. Pension costs (to the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System (PSERS) were $10,425,560 (and significantly growing), while $8,344,647 was for healthcare-dental-vision insurance costs. Folks, that’s 26 percent of the total budget, and those costs are only going up.

r The administration and a majority of the board need to make tough choices. Here’s a recent example: The district recently eliminated its 11 Title I assistant positions because it Title I funding is not adequate to sustain the employees. It wasn’t that the district has less Title I funding, just not enough to sustain the salaries and benefits of all 11 assistants and 14 teachers. So to retain the teachers, the assistant positions were eliminated. However, all of the 11 Title I assistants were re-assigned so they’re still on the payroll.

r For the first time upon negotiation of contracts two years ago, the administration and board incorporated a series of salary steps for non-instructional administrators (a protocol similar to teachers) that resulted in pay raises beyond their cost-of-living adjustment. The top salary for a noninstructional administrator may now top out at $87,675.

We do not mean to begrudge anyone being paid a good salary for good, effective work.

There are many hard-working, dedicated teachers and staff at Keystone who go above and beyond the call of duty to affect students’ lives in a productive, positive way.

But this is rural Central Pennsylvania, where the City of Lock Haven has a 41-percent poverty rate and 16.4 percent of Clinton County’s 37,178 residents live below the poverty line. (That’s higher than national average of 14.7 percent.)

At current spending levels, Keystone might just be five years away from a $100 million budget.

There needs to be grassroots change.

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