School Building Gap: School leaders, lawmakers confront disparities in funding

School Building Gap: School leaders, lawmakers confront disparities in funding

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - A recent court ruling revealed Pennsylvania's public schools are underfunded by more than $4 billion, and the lawsuit demands the state legislature fix the funding crisis in our schools.

"I like to work in a nice environment, and also, I feel cared for when I get a new chair, a new desk instead of something rusty or falling apart," said Quinn O'Leary, a junior at Beaver Area High School.

Our students learn, grow and create life-long habits inside the four walls of their classrooms.

However, not all classrooms are created equally.

KDKA talked to local school districts about their funding and asked a lawmaker when our legislature would make a change.

As soon as O'Leary laid eyes on her high school, she noticed the changes.

"I remember pulling up, and I saw the wraps around the windows across the builds, and it just makes the school look nicer from an aesthetic standpoint, and it's also a good safety tool for our school."

A fresh year with fresh paint, Beaver Bobcat security wrapped to cover the first-floor glass, and new furniture going into the science lab.

"Yeah, my first-period consumer sciences, we're having a whole new lab equipment cabinet, and it's sort of hard to work with dated stuff, so to get everything brand new is really helpful for our labs and even sitting in nicer chairs, easier to concentrate."

The Beaver Area School District is investing $55 per student in school infrastructure.

National school data compiled by CBS News and analyzed by KDKA Investigates shows Beaver ranks 109th out of 139 area school districts when it comes to infrastructure spending.

Not the best, but not the worst.

Compared to other schools locally, they spend $783 less per student than the average infrastructure spending, but they still find ways to make it count.

"I mean, I like it, especially the hallways got redone, the ceilings... It makes it feel like I'm going to a more higher-class school," Caleb Berardelli of Beaver Area High School said.

Barardelli's a running back on the high school's football team, so the facelift goes a long way.

"We were hype; we got sit-down locker rooms, a bunch of cabinets. We knew it was coming, but we didn't know it would be like this nice, so we're very fortunate we have this now."

Beaver Area Superintendent Mark Holtzman said he wants to invest smarter, completing infrastructure jobs in cost-effective ways. He keeps fine-tuning the district's financial plan because he says a lot of the money goes towards retirement and charter schools.

He says the pot of money left over is never enough.

"If you don't have a plan, the next thing you know, the roof is leaking in 20 places, or an elevator is broken and needs [to be] repaired for $100,000. You have to have the ability to keep the upkeep on your schools."

The district relies on an 80/20 breakdown for funding--80% tax revenue from the community and about 20% in state and federal funding.

Now, drive an hour south, and you'll find Holtzman's mentor, Dr. Janet Sardon, superintendent of the West Jefferson Hills School District.

Her funding breakdowns are the same, 80/20, but her district tops the list in infrastructure spending at $7,792 per student.

"We built this building, we added a wing to elementary, [and] we did an HVAC project. Those facility numbers are this building and a couple of other projects across the board. If you move it forward or ahead, you're going to find those numbers to look a whole lot different," Dr. Sardon said.

Sardon says she's trying to keep up with enrollment; it's up 12% over the last six years. The district predicts another 400 to 500 students will enroll in the next decade. Still, she thinks fair funding is an issue, and raising taxes on residents only gets districts so far.

"We've always had conversations amongst my colleagues about fair funding, and what does that fair funding mean?"

KDKA Investigates crunched the numbers and found schools nationwide, on average, spend $1,244 per student on building infrastructure each year, but in the Pittsburgh area, the average is just $838.

The data shows districts completing the most infrastructure projects had the least amount of students receiving free and reduced lunch, meaning less wealthy districts invest less in infrastructure to the tune of $582 per student each year.

On top of that, investments from the state failed to bridge the funding gap, with the state giving only about $60 more per student to these less wealthy districts.

Representative Dan Miller used to sit on the state's education committee and says the current funding formula doesn't work. He says some districts continue to thrive, and others can't get ahead.

"Making sure that that gap that may be there is never so steep that a kid can't see their future in it, right? And the court case said it was, and I think that they were right," Rep. Miller said. "Your food costs, your mental health, your disability, your tech things, like that universal needs, they should be met by Harrisburg, that's it."

But the data shows Harrisburg isn't meeting those needs, leaving many districts little money left over for needed infrastructure projects. This recent court ruling says state lawmakers must fix the more than $4 billion worth of education inequities and do it quickly.

"The court also has tools to enforce any decision that will be a part of the court's decision to make. I hope though they don't have to come to us about our failure to meet that obligation, and instead, we're meeting it as quickly as possible," Rep. Miller added.

While Pennsylvania's schools are severely underfunded by the state, they are not the worst in the country. Nationally, the average funding from states per student is $149, and Pennsylvania averages $256.

Rep. Miller hopes this will be a top priority for the education committee this fall.

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