By MARC LEVY
HARRISBURG (AP, May 22) — A Republican-penned bill that would pave the way for state takeovers of Pennsylvania school districts veering toward financial collapse has the support of Gov. Tom Corbett and began advancing in the Legislature on Tuesday over the objections of Democrats.
The Senate Education Committee voted along partisan lines to send it to the full Senate in the hopes that the bill will reach the governor’s desk before the Legislature takes its traditional two-month summer break from Harrisburg.
The legislation is being spurred by fears of a wave of collapsing districts and is being fast-tracked so it can receive quicker consideration in the House if it passes in the Senate.
It would replace a piecemeal approach used in the past for struggling districts, and would immediately affect four districts: Duquesne, Harrisburg, York and Chester-Upland, which sued the state in federal court in January after it threatened to shut down due to lack of money.
Democrats attacked the bill as a backdoor move to bust teachers’ unions and hand schools to private operators in districts already hamstrung by cutbacks in state aid and threadbare local tax bases. But Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, defended it as the only alternative to continuing to throw money at failing districts.
“It is taking on the responsibility … the constitution gives to this General Assembly to provide ‘a thorough and efficient system of public education,’ and I don’t know how else to do it,” Piccola told committee members.
Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, contended that the only place the state will find savings to right the district’s finances is by forcing staff to take pay cuts — ensuring teacher turnover and making it all but impossible to attract talented teachers to work for lower pay in a challenging district.
“We’re completely destroying the standards of the profession, and we’re completely destroying the opportunity of our kids to have a quality education by doing that,” Leach said.
Piccola predicted the bill will pass the Senate, but did not know how the Republican-controlled House would react to it. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said the chamber’s leadership had just received a copy of the bill and would look at it.
The governor’s secretary of legislative affairs, Annmarie Kaiser, provided a letter of support for the bill to Piccola and his Democratic counterpart on the Education Committee, Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester.
“When local school districts cannot or will not make these decisions on their own, the state will need to step in and take action to provide for the education of the students and to protect the interest of the taxpayers,” her letter said.
Under the bill, a state action would be triggered in several ways, including if a district needs an advance on its state aid. The state would provide technical assistance while the secretary of education would appoint a chief recovery officer.
The recovery officer would have the power to recommend a wide-ranging plan that could increase taxes, tap zero-interest loans from the state, close schools or convert them into charter schools, hire new school managers or overseers or dictate a personnel salary schedule.
The secretary of education could also seek court approval for the appointment of a receiver in districts that opt for one, or do not cooperate with a recovery officer. A receiver would have the power of the school board to impose a recovery plan.
The bill also prohibits a school district from seeking federal bankruptcy protection.