- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—ALIQUIPPA — Even as the Aliquippa School District faces the fiscal challenges that come with serving an area with a collapsing tax base and eroding population, Superintendent David Wytiaz said he looks for “small victories” as the district and the city try to rebound.

Wytiaz wasn’t surprised by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s news release issued Tuesday that calls for educational reforms in Pennsylvania.

DePasquale cites a Moody’s Investors Service report that classifies eight school districts in the state with “junk” bond status as another reason that changes need to be made in the way the state funds education.

“This is troubling news for school districts and for residents, because when bond ratings are downgraded, it drives up the costs when schools need to borrow money to repair or upgrade their facilities,” DePasquale said in the news release.

“Simply increasing funding is not enough. We need to stem the hemorrhaging of school district finances and look for long-term, systemic changes.”

School districts face a variety of financial pressures, including tuition payments to charter schools, dwindling real estate tax bases and the failure of the Department of Education to follow through on construction reimbursements, he said.

“With no significant reforms being seriously considered in the Legislature to fix these huge problems, more and more Pennsylvania schools could very well slide off the financial cliff. This is not about some investment rating; this is about keeping our schools open and educating our students.

“Pennsylvania’s economy could be in peril if our education system crumbles,” DePasquale said. “All options must be on the table.”

His comments were issued in the wake of a state budget standoff between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature that has no end in sight and means all school districts are facing uncertainties about state funding.

In Aliquippa, it’s especially a problem because the district is heavily dependent on the state for funding and guidance. The district is one of four statewide on the watch list for financial recovery, a step above four districts that are in the state recovery program for ailing school districts.

“Obviously, we’ve been working to get off it,” Wytiaz said. “We have worked diligently with the (Department of Education) with their support and their blessings to move forward.”

But there’s little hope for improvement in Aliquippa, unless big changes are made, Wytiaz said.

“Realistically, unless there’s a change in our economic tax base, we’re going to struggle,” he said. “We don’t have the sustainability of a strong, vibrant economy and a tax base here in the city of Aliquippa.

“That being said, I look for small victories,” he said.

The school district’s bond rating by Standard & Poor’s — the rating service similar to Moody’s that the district uses — improved slightly this year, from BBB- to BBB, with a “stable” outlook, Wytiaz said.

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(c)2015 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)

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