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Woodland Hills Leaders React to Proposed Cuts in Education

School board members prepare to make tough decisions after Gov. Tom Corbett announced his state budget proposal Tuesday.

Local educators and leaders are reacting today after Gov. Tom Corbett announced a $27.3 billion budget which called for a nearly $500 million cut in basic public education funds.

In addition, Corbett encouraged school districts to hold the line even if it means a pay freeze for school employees. State-related universities also were hit with substantial cuts. The University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University, are seeing their state funding essentially halved.

While the governor will not raise taxes, many local leaders believe the burden now falls on the school districts.

School Board Member Marilyn Messina said the deep cut in education would mean a loss of $2.5 million in the Woodland Hills School District. That loss can be equated to about 50 teachers’ salaries.

“That’s a big number,” Messina said. “Does that mean we are going to cut 50 teachers? No -- but that’s what $2.5 million comes to.”

Messina said she believes the people most affected by this proposed cut would be the students.

“Even if I wasn’t a school director and you talk to me about education – people equate education with school salaries,” she said. “We need to talk about preparing students and young people with the skills they need to become productive citizens.”

Messina said cuts in programs in the school district are inevitable with the kinds of budget announced Tuesday.

“In the bottom line, it affects the students we are trying to bring up to speed,” she said. “Somewhere along the line, there has to be give and take. If you want certain things done, you need to fund it. We are going to have to make some difficult decisions.”

Woodland Hills School Board Member Randy Lott of Swissvale said the announcement wasn’t entirely surprising, as members earlier last week had met with State. Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who warned of the cuts.

“We are going to have to sit down and re-examine programs and how we are going forward very carefully,” Lott said. “I do believe that these are the kinds of changes that are not going to be met by cutting paper clips. We are going to have to look fundamentally at the structure of our schools.”

Lott said he hopes the public will have a chance to sit down and talk to administrators about what the proposed cuts would mean for the district and all of the people who live there.

“These are all difficult, difficult choices,” Lott said.

As far as the proposal of freezing pay for teachers, Lott said it’s no secret that the majority of the school district’s budget is slated for salaries and benefits.

“Something’s got to give,” he said. “We are engaged in negotiations and that’s subject to those discussions. We need to look everywhere and that’s the best way to say it.”

Costa said the proposed budget "falls short alls short of the stated goal of equally sharing the pain of reduced spending," in a news release issued Tuesday.

“We can’t afford to be short-sighted by simply cutting spending first and asking questions later,” Costa said in the release. “One of my biggest concerns with this proposal is the possibility that it merely results in a tax shift, which may lead to higher property taxes to pay for basic education cuts. Working families are hit hard, and big business gets a free pass.”

While school districts across the state are preparing for the possibility of these cuts, Corbett called for no taxing of the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus shale areas in an effort to "make Pennsylvania the hub of this [natural-gas] boom."

Woodland Hills School Board Member Robert Tomasic said the cuts would impact the number of students in classrooms, the selection of courses and more.

“They talk about investment in the children for the future and they cut off the money,” Tomasic said. “This area used to give a lot of money to the state through Westinghouse and the mills and now we are sitting here, lost most of the mills and the governor from western Pennsylvania says he is cutting off the money here.”

Tomasic said that while the school district has some communities that “can’t even keep the street lights on” because of a struggling economy, he feels the governor has forgotten the contributions the region has made to the state. He also said he is concerned about the call to hold the line on salaries, in addition to the fact that the district’s taxpayers cannot afford an increase.

“Economically, school districts cannot cut back on teachers unless you have a loss of enrollment,” Tomasic said. “We can’t raise taxes because of the impact on seniors and industry that will definitely move out if we do that. There will be more of an exodus of companies.”

He reiterated that students themselves will see their educations impacted, though the details right now are unclear.

“Students will definitely suffer as we sacrifice,” Tomasic said. “I’m disappointed that the governor would step in at this time when the economy is in such bad shape. I can’t believe he did this.”

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