Dilemma for a Small District

Cut positions in order to save the district. That’s the position taken by the administration of the Northgate School District, a district serving the North Hills communities of Avalon and Bellevue. Population has fallen in the communities, as has public school enrollment, but there are more teachers now (115) than there were in the 1995-96 school year (110). Thus, the proposal to layoff 23 teachers and 10 aides at a meeting this week. As we have written before, Pennsylvania only allows layoffs of public school employees when there is a drop in enrollment or a program is shuttered, not for economic conditions.

Consider: in 95-96 enrollment was 1,644 students and the pupil to teacher ratio was 14.9. In 12-13 enrollment was 1,211 and the resulting ratio was 10.5. Laying off 23 teachers-and assuming enrollment does not change dramatically for next year, say it stands at 1,180-the pupil-teacher ratio would be 12.8, lower than the national average of 15.1 and that of Pennsylvania (13.8) as of 2010. Curiously, a November 2011 article detailing a new four-year contract for teachers recalled three teachers who had been laid off and stated that it had "eliminated the need for additional layoffs".

The superintendent-who was hired last May-went on record saying he would not support merging with another district due to losing the character of neighborhood schools that serve the district. Property tax rates went up 24% in the District from 2001 through 2012 and, at 28.6 mills now, the District has one of the highest millage rates in Allegheny County. Northgate, like all districts in the state, are facing steep increases to pension costs. How does the District work its way out of this situation?

Another Merger Hurdle: Teacher Unions

Here’s another possible roadblock to school district consolidation as proposed by the Governor (taking 500 districts down to 100), legislators (some versions go down to 70 districts) or just the concept in general (a mandatory merger plan or one that guides voluntary combinations): how do teacher unions react? Much of the motivation by the strongest proponents is that the "back office" functions of principals, secretaries, nurses, librarians, etc. could see efficiencies through economies of scale.

But what if five districts are put together into a new district and the teaching staff has to be assembled: what rules the day? Is it seniority or classroom achievement? Smart money says it will be the former. That’s what happened when the districts of Monaca and Center joined together and jobs were cut. According to a newspaper article last April "Center cut four elementary positions…due to seniority, however, three of those teachers are bumping less senior teachers at the secondary level."

And what about pay levels? Would the lowest salaried district pull the consolidated districts down to that level or would salaries rise to meet the higher pay levels? If experience from other mergers, specifically City-County mergers like Louisville-Jefferson County, is any guide, the personnel costs will get more expensive.

It is safe to say that, in contrast to the massive number of school consolidations that took place in PA and the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, the power and presence of teacher unions has significantly changed the balance of power.