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With SB 664, you’re going to pay more

To the editor:

Although I didn’t read Thursday’s editorial about Senate Bill 664, which has been fast-tracked through the Senate, I do know that your editorial spoke in favor of the bill. I’m writing to remind the taxpayers of the old phrase, “The road to hell is often paved with good intentions.” This bill is the epitome of that old phrase.

Let me begin by reminding the taxpayers and parents of our students that MCSD has received money via federal stimulus for the express purpose of helping our students who’ve lost any learning through upcoming summer tutoring, before and after school tutoring, and even an early summer tutoring program that is already up and running now. We are mandated to use $3.5 million in stimulus funds to do this, so we already have a plan/solution in place through these dollars to take care of the kids’ needs.

Additionally, MCSD has been in school for in person instruction four days a week from September through the end of November, and five days a week since January. Compared to many districts, our students have had far greater opportunity to receive in-person instruction all year long (with the exception of the month of December when COVID numbers were at their peak).

The average taxpayer who reads the headline on the bill might think it sounds great, but in fact, if passed in the House, it’s going to have an impact on the district budget, and your wallets. It’s an unfunded mandate because the bill does not include additional dollars for school districts to fund the additional teaching and support staff positions that would be needed to deal with the additional students who choose to extend another year. Let’s look at simple math to make it clearer. MCSD has 753 special needs students, and overall, we have about 4,600 students total in the system. Let’s say that half of our special-needs students opt for an extra year, and 5% of our 3,900 regular education students opt for the extra year. Now we have an extra 575 additional students in the system for an extra year. In order to educate these additional students, we now need to find and hire 20 additional teachers and five additional paraprofessionals to accommodate their needs. After paying mandatory salary, health benefits, Social Security and pension contributions, those 25 additional employees would cost the district an additional $2.275 million. To pay for that, because the legislature isn’t going to do it, we would have two choices — one, we cut student programs by that same amount to cover the costs, or two, we raise taxes to cover it. On May 17, I have a budget meeting with the board, and the plan was to present a balanced budget for the coming year with no new taxes. If a bill like this passes both chambers of the legislature, that spending plan goes out the window.

Finally, if this bill passes, it will also create a devastating financial impact on our district and taxpayers because it will cause our charter school tuition bills to skyrocket even further in future years. The formula that the state uses to set charter tuition rates is based primarily on the number of special education students your district serves, and how much you spend on them per year locally. Again, simple math — we would have more special needs students and we would spend more money to educate them. This means the state will increase our future charter school tuition, which already costs almost $25,000 per special education student. In the current school year, we’re already set to spend $4.2 million on charter tuition. That number will continue to grow exponentially if this bill passes because the legislature has failed to pass charter tuition reform — in spite of years of begging them to do so for the sake of the local taxpayers and schools. It’s pretty amazing that they are so quick to pass a bill like SB 664, but have dragged their feet for years while knowing that the charter school tuition problem has been bilking taxpayers for years — I can’t figure that one out!

Since this bill has already fast-tracked through the Senate, I would encourage any concerned taxpayer to contact your House members and ask them to vote this bill down. Again, we already have stimulus dollars to address learning loss issues. We do not need this bill on top of that — if it passes, the local tax base will be the ones stuck with the bill. The really disappointing thing is that I had just had a meeting with the senator about three weeks ago, and this plan was never discussed, so I had no opportunity to explain the implications of passing a bill like this and how it would affect our local community. If he had only brought up that he was considering pushing this idea, I and other superintendents could have explained how it impacts the local level schools and taxpayers. I also wish The Sentinel would’ve considered reaching out to the local school district prior to publishing their editorial, as I could have further educated them on the hidden costs behind such an idea. Hopefully, the taxpayers will take me at my word (which includes 17 years of school financing experience) when I say this is a bad bill for the MCSD budget and the taxpayer. Remember, with SB 664, you’re going to pay more!

James Estep

Superintendent

Mifflin County School District

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