Guest Column

An Up-Close Civics Lesson on School Financing

by JEAN ATKIN GOOL

In May 2008, the budget situation in the Keystone School District in a rural part of western Pennsylvania was growing bleak.

As superintendent, I helped plan and implement a one-time buyout for faculty that would take effect at the end of the school year.

Nearly 5 percent of the district’s 100 teachers took advantage of the offer. As a result, several teaching positions became vacant, and the board of education decided not to fill all of them to save us money. While these retirements temporarily helped the financial state, we still needed to increase our funding to educate Keystone’s 1,100 students.

Some of our high school students were growing worried about the fiscal condition and asked to be part of the solution. I met with the social studies faculty to compile data about the district’s funding state. We were facing a $160,000 deficit in our proposed budget and had only received a modest 1.5 percent increase in our state appropriation. (A mill of taxes in our district is equal to about $40,000.) This resulted in a shortfall in funding, and we were painfully aware we were falling further behind in fulfilling students’ basic needs.

Several teachers joined me to discuss the school district’s worsening financial situation with high school juniors and seniors as a real-world learning experience.

Unusual Turnout
Two state legislative budget hearings were scheduled for the coming weeks, first the assembly, then the senate about a week later. Students already versed in the legislative process wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more. We created what we called District Talking Points, a list of likely budget cuts and the implications each would have on our schools’ programs and services.

We used the school district website to create template letters for community members, young and old, for expressing their concerns to the local representatives. We sent similar information on the funding crisis, plus legislators’ mailing addresses, to the local newspapers. The community supported our informational campaign, flooding the offices of the legislature with letters about their worries for the quality of education in our schools.

The high school’s juniors and seniors signed up to ride a school bus to Harrisburg, the state capital, to attend the legislative hearings. Because of the extensive interest, we took three buses to the assembly and senate hearings. Imagine the surprise on the legislators’ faces to see 60 students filing in as the hearings commenced. We packed the room.

Our local assembly representative arranged for a second room for students to watch the hearings on closed circuit TV in the state capitol. The students sat quietly and attentively, taking notes through five grueling hours of legislative testimony. Our state senator joined the students at the end of the hearings to answer their questions. At that point, our students went to work using their notes to frame incisive questions. They impressed one representative so much he donated two college scholarships to be awarded to students in our district.

Enriching Episodes
Because of the substantial distance to Harrisburg from western Pennsylvania, we left our community at 3 a.m. to attend the second hearing, this one in front of the state senate. When we entered the hearing room, eyebrows rose again. Students do not normally attend these sessions, certainly not en masse from a community at the end of the state. Students were engaged, intense and interested in the process playing out in front of them.

Another grueling six hours and we were still there and definitely on task. At the end of the testimony, the state’s secretary of education encouraged the students to continue their quest for knowledge, their interest in civics and their passion for responsive government action. The students were thrilled.

The education secretary, himself a former district superintendent and local school board member, connected on a personal level with the students. As a result, our bus trip home was full of questions and reactions. The students replayed the day over and over, staying awake to share their experience with their families and friends upon return. We arrived back at school 18 hours after departing — with students who had grown significantly owing to their newfound knowledge of state government and politics.

The end result was a modest 3 percent increase in funding for our district from the state, two new college scholarships and 100 high school students committed to the legislative process in ways that brought their civic studies to life. These students now can put a human dimension on the issue of school funding.

The “face” we brought to the state legislature was critical. Adults in decision-making roles sometimes are too far removed from their own school days to remember that education funding is, above all, about the students we all serve.

I urge superintendents to take a chance by accompanying a busload of their students to the state capital to experience firsthand their government at work. You may improve your state funding as our small borough did, though we came away from that bus trip with greater rewards — a hands-on connection with a process that often seems abstract and distant in our classrooms. By doing so, I guarantee you will enrich the lives of students, expand the walls of your schools and invigorate your community.

Jean Atkin Gool is superintendent of the Keystone School District in Knox, Pa. E-mail: jgool@keyknox.com