Balancing the books

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The Erie School District continues to wait for Harrisburg, with the well-documented request for almost $32 million in state money remains in limbo.
One of the key questions will be “how many high schools are needed in Erie?” If consolidation is coming, there are certainly examples to look at and learn from.

In Utica, New York,  the city school district has been operating just one high school for decades. Originally planned to hold about 2,100, there are now almost 3,000 students converging there daily.

Utica superintendent Bruce Karam says,  “we’re the only growing school district, student population, in central New York.”

Bruce Karam points to a growing immigrant population among high school students. As Utica’s school superintendent, he admits there are challenges to having just one high school, but with the drawbacks he believes there are also advantages.

“The pros to this are, we can offer programs, more programs, more activities, more clubs under one high school than if we had to split into two high schools. So, everything is consolidated under one roof.” Karam says. 

Karam says his district may have to look at a second high school, if state funding allowed it. The question marks surrounding state funding are, of course, also an issue in Erie. Facing a 410 million dollar debt for the 2017-2018 school year. The district still doesn’t know if they’ll will get any of the $32 million they want from the state.

Erie school district CFO Brian Polito says “even though that seems like a big number, when you look at it, that will just get us to 10% below what school districts spend on average across the state per student.”

For now, it’s status quo in Erie. Even the superintendent now says there’s no imminent threat of closing the high schools, unless the state decides the district will get nothing extra.

Erie School District Superintendent Dr. Jay Badams says, “if we’re torn between the choice of cutting $10 million from our budget, taking all that away from our kids or simply closing schools and tuitioning kids out to districts that have adequate resources, the latter seems the more ethical course of action.”

As the state considers the Erie School District’s financial recovery plan. They’re now doing so with a list of priorities requested by the department of education. Number two on that list, millions of dollars to jumpstart school renovations, including the four high school buildings, whether or not they remain high schools.

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