BUDGET BLUES

 

In Columbia on a frigid February morning, students without a ride to school walked.

 

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On sidewalks between high snow banks, they passed art galleries and tattoo parlors, Club Good Times and the National Watch Museum, empty storefronts and charming Victorian homes.

 

The kids walked because the compact, 1,310-student district doesn’t run buses.

 

It never has, which in these challenging times for all school districts is a rare financial advantage.

 

But that and the borough’s deep reservoirs of community spirit are almost the only advantages Columbia’s three public schools have in a battle for financial sustainability.

 

A proud, riverside town of 10,400, Columbia has the poorest district in Lancaster County, ranking 76th out of 500 in the state. The schools’ financial foundation is cracking, and short of the state stepping in with more funds, there is no relief in sight.

 

 

Two students walk to class on a cold February morning in Columbia. (Casey Kreider/Lancaster Newspapers)

Two students walk to class on a cold March morning in Columbia. (Casey Kreider/Lancaster Newspapers)

 

 

Other places - Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Chester Upland, among others - are in worse shape. But absent something substantive being done, Columbia down the road might join them.

 

Borough leaders are fighting to reverse decades of decline. Adding failing schools to the mix makes the fight one few distressed municipalities win.

 

Most economists agree education is critical to helping children escape poverty, said economist Mark Price with the Keystone Research Center.

 

“Allowing the Columbia school district to fail,” he said, “would undermine the (county) economy in much the same way the loss of a high-wage employer does.”

 

DOING WITHOUT

 

Columbia’s unforgiving financial picture ultimately lands on Laura Cowburn’s desk. As the district’s business manager, she crafts the school budget, wrestling tight revenues and endless needs into a tolerable compromise. The task gets tougher and tougher.

 

 

 Laura Cowburn is the business manager for Columbia School District.

Laura Cowburn is the business manager for Columbia School District.

 

 

The additional $241 million for schools that Gov. Tom Corbett proposed in his annual budget address on that wintry February morning would mean an increase of $273,894 for Columbia. It was a 4.3 percent increase.

 

Not enough.

 

Cowburn knew pensions, special education and other costs were climbing faster. She had forecast a need to raise taxes at least 3.1 percent. She’d also have to dip into dwindling reserves.

 

 

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Corbett’s proposed increase didn’t change her plan. “It’s some relief,” she said, “but we’re so far behind right now that we still face a struggle. I can’t lie about that.”

 

 

And now, even that modest increase from the state is in jeopardy. With a $1 billion-plus state budget deficit looming, cuts instead of increases are likely unless the governor reverses his pledge on no new or higher taxes.

 

Columbia’s revenue problems are having a very real impact. Already some teachers aren’t replaced, and opportunities are increasingly jeopardized.

 

“If there was a soccer team, I would join,” said 15-year-old Faith Pearson. “And if there was like chess club, I would join that, too.”

 

Common in other county districts are lacrosse, field hockey and mock trial teams. They have orchestras and Advanced Placement classes. They have hall monitors, school resource officers and special education aides.

 

Columbia’s kids go without. There just isn’t the money.

 

TAX BASE BLUES

 

The reason is simple, or at least simple to say. A comparison with next-door Hempfield highlights the issue.

 

Because of its $3.6 billion property tax base - as opposed to Columbia’s $356 million - Hempfield reaps $3.4 million for every mill it levies. Columbia, by comparison, brings in $288,000. Looked at another way, property owners in Columbia tax themselves nearly one and a half times more than those in Hempfield yet raise one-tenth the revenue.

 

Already Columbia has increased taxes more over the last seven years than any other district in Lancaster County despite having the lowest salaries. In 2012-13, the district spent 61 percent of its budget on instruction compared to the county average of 56 percent.

 

 

Over the past seven years the board has raised taxes an average 6.5 percent a year. Columbia had the 34th-highest taxes among Pennsylvania's 500 districts in 2011-12. (Casey Kreider/Lancaster Newspapers)

Over the past seven years the board has raised taxes an average 6.5 percent a year. Columbia had the 34th-highest taxes among Pennsylvania's 500 districts in 2011-12. (Casey Kreider/Lancaster Newspapers)

 

 

Even smaller Wrightsville, which sits across the Susquehanna River in York County, doesn’t face anywhere close to the same problems. It benefits from being part of the Eastern York School District, which is comprised of six municipalities.

 

 

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GLORY DAYS

 

When Charles "Bud" Heim, 79, a local history buff, goes about town, he catches glimpses of Columbia's faded glory.

 

As late as the 1950s, when Heim was a young man, Columbia pulsed with vitality. On weekend evenings, he recalls, Locust Street teemed with shoppers recharged by payday.

 

 

Locust Street at Third Street teems with shoppers in this archive photo from the Columbia Historical Society.

Locust Street at Third Street teems with shoppers in this archive photo from the Columbia Historical Society.

 

 

And it wasn't just Columbians. Families from Wrightsville, Marietta, Mountville and Washington Boro were drawn to the retail hub.

 


Taking their cash and checks were department store clerks, shoe sellers, dress shop proprietors, jewelers, grocers and the ticket booth at the State Theater.

 

It was a vibrant scene, but even then Columbia was decades removed from its heyday.

 

By the early 1900s, as steam transitioned to electrification, Columbia's capitalists had seized upon their town's strategic advantage as a railroad hub and built a diverse industrial center. Columbians poured iron, rolled steel, wove textiles and sewed garments. They also manufactured big stuff: stoves, refrigerators, wagons, compressors.

 

 

This is a historical image of the Columbia Manufacturing Company. By the early 1900s, as the age of steam transitioned to electrification, Columbia's capitalists had seized upon their town's strategic advantage as a railroad hub and built a diverse industrial center.

This is a historical image of the Columbia Manufacturing Company. By the early 1900s, as the age of steam transitioned to electrification, Columbia's capitalists had seized upon their town's strategic advantage as a railroad hub and built a diverse industrial center.

 

 

The work force in the town of 12,000 supported a bustling market house, enticing department stores and a fashionable opera house.

 

The industrialists built substantial homes with high windows, cozy porticos and roofs featuring decorative gables, dormers and turrets. On Sundays, Columbians worshipped in rock-solid churches built for the ages.

 

Today, much of the architectural legacy has been preserved. It's the economic magic that couldn't be sustained.

 

As capitalism favored new technologies, Columbia's aging industries fell behind. Plants closed and the borough slid into a new era of hollowing out.

 

WHY SOLUTIONS ARE OUT OF REACH

 

If there was an easy way to turn things around for the borough and school district, it would have been done already. A merger with a surrounding school district, true property tax reform, and placing affordable housing throughout the county instead of concentrating a high percentage in Columbia all would make a difference.

 

But they are not easy to accomplish quickly or politically.

 

More state aid, the one thing with immediate impact, is jeopardized by the ballooning state deficit. But state Rep. David Hickernell, who represents the borough, declined to comment when asked whether he supports a natural gas extraction tax or other tax to bolster education funding.

 

The school board has been raising taxes, but would prefer not to. Taxes are already the highest in the county. Only 33 other districts in the state tax more.

 

Taxes in ColumbiaLast year, a $100,000 home in Hempfield paid $1,900 in school real estate taxes. The same-priced home in Columbia paid $2,736.

 

The district leaders raise taxes only out of an attempt to find an appropriate balance between the demands placed on taxpayers and the needs of the children. It’s not easy.

 

At a committee meeting in April, Ken Klawitter, acting school superintendent, arrived in a congratulatory mood. Earlier, business manager Cowburn showed him she had found a way to close an $800,000 budget gap and keep a tax increase to the 3.1-percent state limit.

 

“I wanted to hug her,” he told the committee. Staying at the state limit “to me is a win.”

 

Tom Strickler, board president, was less eager to declare victory.

 

“Can I agree with you the 3.1 percent is a tremendous accomplishment, but as a taxpayer,” said Strickler, “it sucks.”

 

He said raising taxes again would further hurt retired homeowners and deter homebuyers, who are a key to an economic revival.

 

VIDEO: MEET THE SCHOOL BOARD PRESIDENT

 

Watch video of School Board President Tom Strickler

 

 

The proposed increase would mean taxes on a $100,000 property would rise to $2,820, or $235 a month. No other district in Lancaster County was raising taxes as much. One district was proposing no increase.

 

“I’m not suggesting you change it,” Strickler said. But, he added, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what the answer is.”

 

VIDEO: MEET RON FRITZ

 

 

Watch video of Ron Fritz

 

 

He wanted to be fair to students as well as to taxpayers like retired blue-collar worker Ronald Fritz, who, in addressing the board in March, complained that taxes were “killing us.”

RACE TO THE BOTTOM

 

Columbia’s depressed economy and the rise in poverty are major forces driving the need for more taxes.

 

Over the last 15 years, childhood poverty in the borough has doubled to 26 percent. Participation of Columbia children in the federal free-and-reduced lunch program has gone from 45 percent 10 years ago to 66 percent today, second only to Lancaster City.

 

The median household income in Lancaster County is $56,172. For Columbia, it’s $37,380.

 

 

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MAP: STUDENTS LIVING IN POVERTY: 2012

 

U.S. Census Bureau estimates for the year 2012 show that poverty rates for Lancaster County school districts ranged from 7.9 percent in Warwick to 32.6 percent in Lancaster.

 

In Columbia, 26 percent of the children ages 5 to 17 live in poverty. That's more than 400 school students. The census’ Small Area Income and Poverty estimates, which come out every year, count children ages 5-17 who reside in a particular school district — not just those who attend public school.

 

To use this map, click on a school district to see the details about poverty.

Along with poverty come students with special needs. This spring, 341 students - or 26 percent of enrollment - had individualized education plans that outline the often expensive services required to address learning disabilities and other needs. The statewide average is 16 percent.

 

This is in addition to the board’s efforts to offer students an education on par with the vast majority of schools in the county and state. It is committed to full-day kindergarten, for instance, a program education experts say is particularly vital for low-income youngsters.

 

But rising costs and insufficient state support has forced the district to cut personnel. Since Corbett took office, the board has cut the full-time professional and administrative staff by 14 percent. The support staff has fallen by 22 percent.

 

The responsibilities Brian Schell shouldered help illustrate the issue. He served this past school year as assistant high school principal, curriculum and instruction coordinator and Title I coordinator.

 

 

This past school year Brian Schell  shouldered three weighty responsibilities — assistant high school principal, curriculum and instruction coordinator, and Title I coordinator — and labored to make it work.

This past school year Brian Schell shouldered three weighty responsibilities — assistant high school principal, curriculum and instruction coordinator, and Title I coordinator — and labored to make it work.

 

 

“It’s hard to keep the focus on what’s best for students because it becomes what’s best for survival,” Schell said.

 

“I see a staff that is starting, I don’t want to say give up, but they’re tired,” he added. “I don’t know how to offer them the relief they’re looking for.”

HARD CHOICES

 

As the board wrestles with the onerous choice of replacing a retiring teacher or letting class size rise, the disappointment of low academic performance overshadows the discussion.

 

The state says Columbia Junior/Senior High School and Park Elementary are in the bottom 13 percent academically statewide. Meanwhile, in 2012-13, Columbia’s dropout rate was 17.4 percent, compared to the county rate of 5.9 percent.

 

For high school students, their choice of courses doesn’t compare to Hempfield.

 

 

Lindsay Garrett, a high school science teacher, talks with a student. (Blaine Shahan/Lancaster Newspapers)

Lindsay Garrett, a high school science teacher, talks with a student. (Blaine Shahan/Lancaster Newspapers)

 

 

While Columbia offers French II and Spanish IV, Hempfield students can choose from Spanish V, French IV, German IV and Chinese IV.

 

Columbia offers current science, physics, ecology, biology II and chemistry II. Hempfield has 26 science options, including astronomy and an honors course in anatomy.

 

“The classes the kids really want - wood shop, home economics, computer applications - we can’t offer (as often) because we don’t have the money to hire the teachers,” said Kelly Santoro, a ninth-grade English teacher.

 

Nearby Penn Manor High School students are given a new laptop for use at school and home. In Columbia, students share laptops in class. They are often slow and unreliable.

 

“We really do have a very dedicated and talented staff,” guidance counselor Leigh Cassidy said, “but we are not doing a good job of preparing our kids for post-secondary life.”

 

“And it’s very sad,” added Cassidy’s colleague, Peggy Woods, “because we’re professionals. We know what we need to do. We’d be so excited if we were able to do it. We’re spread too thin.”

 

 

Peggy Woods, a high school guidance counselor, retired at the end of the school year. (Blaine Shahan/Lancaster Newspapers)

 

 

When Woods retired at the end of the school year, she wasn’t replaced, and Cassidy got an extra grade of students to counsel. She resigned. “I love Columbia. I love the students,” Cassidy said, “but I really just knew that one counselor could not effectively meet the needs of the students.”

 

“It’s almost as if we’re set up for failure by our limitations,” said school board member Kathy Hohenadel. “There’s a lot of prayer that goes into this, I have to tell you. A whole lot of prayer.”

 

“You sort of live this precarious and rather stressful existence,” said Jeanette Wood, who directs the musical and worries it will be cut. “But what are you going to do?”

 

The same question weighed on Klawitter. Earlier in the year the acting superintendent told his administrative team, “Look, I don’t know how, but you’re going to have to cut your instructional budgets by a minimum of 15 percent.”

 

He confessed to waking up “at 3:30 in the morning thinking, ‘How are we going to do this?’ "

MORE CUTS. HIGHER TAXES

 

On May 15, before a sparse audience, the board voted 7-0 to raise taxes 3.06 percent. The members said little, their hands mostly tied.

 

They had no control over an 18-percent, state-mandated increase in pensions and a 13-percent increase for some special education services.

 

After voting to raise taxes, the board cut three and one-half teaching positions and made a clerk part-time. It also trimmed supplies and staff development by 15 percent.

 

But still the district was short. The board agreed to draw more than $600,000 from reserves, reducing funds on hand to about $1 million, or about 5 percent of budgeted expenditures, a level Strickler called dangerously low.

 

The district was still counting on the money Corbett had proposed in his budget proposal, despite it being threatened by the state’s yawning deficit. Failure to receive it meant pulling even more from reserves.

 

The other wild card was an unresolved teacher contract. The board had budgeted no wage increase.

 

“We made it clear” to the teachers, Klawitter said. “If you want a salary increase - you see our numbers - you tell us where to find it. You’re not going to find it.”

 

 

Ken Klawitter, acting school superintendent, made it clear to teachers: “If you want a salary increase - you see our numbers - you tell us where to find it. You’re not going to find it.”

Ken Klawitter, acting school superintendent, made it clear to teachers: “If you want a salary increase - you see our numbers - you tell us where to find it. You’re not going to find it.”

 

 

The superintendent said teachers can expect a raise only if there are concessions in health insurance or elsewhere.

 

“That’s a big pill to swallow,” said fifth-grade teacher Robin Young, a Columbia Education Association leader. “I understand they’re in a crunch. We get it. But we still have to have enough” to pay bills.

 

The board agreed to raises in the last contract talks in 2008 only after a state fact-finder sided with the teachers.

 

“I think we have tried to be reasonable,” said Arlene Gibble, a first-grade teacher and the union president. “In the past we’ve always been able to work things out.”

 

 

Arlene Gibble is a first-grade teacher and the teachers union president. (Richard Hertzler/Lancaster Newspapers)

 

 

But with Cowburn forecasting stagnant revenue for the coming year, these negotiations may be different.

 

This fall, Columbia will still field a football team and cheerleaders. It will still have full-day kindergarten. But to save beloved programming, what will the board have to cut next year?

 

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: The reporters who researched this story will be responding to your questions and talking about this series in the chat box below. Feel free to post your comments or questions at any point during the publication of this series or afterward.

Finance committee chair Hohenadel recalled her early days on the board in the 1990s, when crafting a budget meant trying to do what’s best for students.

 

“At this point in my service to the community,” she said, “I find us making decisions based on what will do the least harm.”

 

One source of optimism radiates from Carol Powell, who starts Tuesday as the new superintendent. She was an assistant superintendent at West York before taking a pay cut to try to turn around this troubled district.

 

The board chose her in hopes her selfless attitude will inspire the community and rally the staff.

 

“It’s going to be hard work and it’s going to be gnashing of the teeth at times,” Powell said.

 

She then added, “I’m game-on for what are the possibilities. The time is ripe in Columbia Borough to move forward.”


NEXT IN THIS SERIES

 

THURSDAY

 

The struggle to keep pace: How one Columbia family survives

A look at poverty in the school district

 

FRIDAY

 

Housing issues

A look at the Northend project

 

SUNDAY

 

Economic development

Community spirit

Solutions

Meet the new superintendent

 

MONDAY

 

Live on LancasterOnline: Town Hall discussion with the superintendent

 

Note: The entire series will appear in print in the Sunday News.