Pennsylvania school transparency issues

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Effective public oversight of public school spending requires an understanding of transparency focal points -- key decisions made by local school boards. All Pennsylvania school boards make three kinds of decisions (the first three on the list below) that have long-term implications both for both the cost and the quality of their educational programs. They may be significantly involved in a fourth decision (fourth on the list).

These transparency focal points are as follows:

  • Annual budget approval
  • Major construction programs
  • Union contracts - negotiations and approval
  • Charter schools/cyberschool programs - authorization and oversight

Annual budget approval

Pennsylvania school districts are required by law to develop annual budgets in which projected revenues and projected expenses are balanced. The Pennsylvania Public School Code (24 PS 1-100 et seq.) requires districts to publish a tentative budget for a forthcoming fiscal year (e.g., 7/1/2009 - 6/30/2010) sufficiently early to allow 20 days for public comment prior to final approval at its last public board meeting of the prior fiscal year.[1] For example, for the budget covering 7/1/2009-6/30/21l0, final approval would occur no later than 6/30/2009 and publication of the tentative budget no later than 5//30/2009.

Act 1 of 2006 accelerated the budget process. Prior to passage of Act 1 school boards typically approved preliminary budgets in May and final budgets by June 30. Under Act 1, however, Pennsylvania school districts must either approve their preliminary budgets in December or early January or else adopt a resolution stating that the following year's budget will not require a tax rate increase greater than the allowable index limit determined by the state.

Major construction programs

Act 34 of 1973, commonly known as the “Taj Mahal Act,” requires public hearings on any major construction plans – new buildings or significant renovations. The issues to be addressed are set by regulation: an explanation of why the project is needed (e.g., to reduce crowding, to improve safety), a list of alternative approaches considered, project description, expected maximum cost, financing plans, and tax impacts.

Act 34 transparency requirements apply to real property purchases, new school construction and major additions to existing buildings (defined as additions that increase floor space by 20% or more). School districts must advertise the hearings and allow at least 30 days for public inspection of relevant documents, like floor plans.

Union Contracts

Contracts with teacher unions drive most of the costs of public education in Pennsylvania, but the process by which these contracts are negotiated (as well as the terms of the contracts themselves) are the least transparent elements in the public education system. Union contract negotiations are almost always conducted behind closed doors, and their contents are often not announced before the meetings in which they are voted into effect.

Teachers in all 501 Pennsylvania school districts are unionized. In most districts, salaries and benefits for teachers account for 45-55% of the district's annual budget. Most contracts are for 3-5 years, but some extend over longer periods.

Charter schools/cyberschool programs