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Richard Fry

Big Spring Superintendent Richard Fry speaks to the Big Spring Class of 2018 in June.

About 67 percent of school districts statewide are in survival mode, according to Richard Fry, president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and superintendent of Big Spring School District.

Such districts tend to be driven by the strictest compliance of state testing requirements and the mandated curriculum standards of the core content areas, according to Fry.

He said districts statewide have shed 22,000 teaching positions since the Great Recession of 2008. While Fry did not have statistics on the breakdown of lost positions by content area, he suspects a “substantial slice” of the job loss was in such nonmandated curriculum programs as art, business education, family/consumer science, music, technology education, library science and world languages.

Challenges

Districts statewide struggle with budget pressures brought on in part by rising health care costs and double-digit annual increases in their contributions to the Pennsylvania Public School Employee Retirement System.

In recent years, there has been a 47 percent turnover among superintendents in Pennsylvania school districts, Fry said. “When the average tenure is 3.7 years, and there’s a 47 percent turnover, how don’t you operate in survival mode?” Fry said.

The combination of budget pressures and a lack of continuity in top-level leadership have made it tempting for some school districts to emphasize core curriculum to such a degree that the nonmandated curriculum programs become targets for rollbacks or cuts.

Robin Brewer is president of the Pennsylvania Art Education Association, which provides its members professional development and advocacy services while offering regional workshops and a statewide conference.

“It’s pretty common that when districts have to tighten up their budgets, they look at things they don’t have to do,” Brewer said. While she has heard of districts that have cut art programs, she does not know of any districts that have nonmandated curriculum program lists.

“The biggest problem with Pennsylvania is we have disparity between the haves and the have-nots,” said Brewer, who is an art teacher with the Garnet Valley School District in Glen Mills, a Philadelphia suburb.

While her district has not made any major cuts to its art program, there are other districts that are struggling to the point where art class is being considered a luxury, Brewer said. There are schools in the Philadelphia system where teachers or families are pressed to provide their own paint or consumable materials, she said. This has led to some creative fundraising techniques to offset deep cuts in supply budgets.

Brewer said some districts have been known to cut only those courses within an art program that involve expensive equipment or overhead.

Often cuts in teacher positions have been made through attrition where districts leave open positions made vacant by retirements or resignations.

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This shrinkage in the workforce has increased class sizes and the demands placed on the teachers that remain. In art education, this has resulted in a shift in the secondary levels where teachers who were once specialists in a specific kind of medium now have to be generalists in a variety of techniques, Brewer said.

Tina Bennett, president of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association, said that over her 35 years in the profession, she has seen a decline in the state in the staffing of school music programs.

“When a director retires, some districts have spread their music staff very thin,” Bennett said. “The program rigor has suffered because of it.

“Family and consumer science has all disappeared in our area,” she said. “Now students cannot sew a button on or feed themselves a decent meal, or balance their finances or handle a credit card.”

Based on input she heard from colleagues, Bennett puts the risk at about 50/50 for nonmandated teachers to be let go.

“Some areas of the state with large, financially stable districts are thriving and adding performance groups all the time,” she said. “Some of the smaller depressed areas are seeing cuts to their programs. Most of this occurs when a faculty member retires. School districts will have an existing teacher take on more classes. In very few instances programs are eliminated.”

Steady build-up

Rick Askey, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the statewide union for teachers, has been a music teacher in the Harrisburg School District for 30 years.

Years ago, fiscal pressures forced Harrisburg to cut half its number of music teachers, said Askey, who was the department chair at the time. He attributed the rollback in the nonmandated music program to cuts in education funding made during the Corbett administration.

The result was the loss of instruction, especially in instrumental music, Askey said. The cutback in music education resulted in a pushback by the public that included a mass rally on the Capitol steps protesting state cuts.

“Music and the arts are essential,” Askey said. “They bring in the parents.” Marching bands and school musicals are often a source of community pride and identity, he noted.

There has been a marked contrast in state education funding under the Wolf administration, Askey said. “A lot of school districts have been able to bring back some of the cuts they made. It has been a slow and steady build-up of the programs due to the advocacy of the teachers and the parents. A bit every year since Wolf has been in office. Not all in one big shot.”

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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