Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Sto-Rox placed in
program by state
By Jamie Wiggan
A state official tasked with shoring up the Sto-Rox School District’s rocky finances recently told a group of school representatives the road to recovery calls for far-reaching changes in the district’s vision and operations.
With the district moving into the state's financial recovery program in July, John Zahorchak, chief recovery officer for Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) met with a newly-formed advisory board Aug. 26 to outline the district’s current challenges and begin carving out a path forward.
Outlining the issues that placed Sto-Rox in the recovery program, Zahorchak told the committee it has the lowest fund balance deficit in the state along with real limitations in its local tax base.
The recently passed 2021–22 budget anticipates a fund balance deficit just short of $10 million by the end of the tax year.
“It may not be shocking to you but we do have some financial problems here,” he said. “We have to find some ways to drive revenue in this district, on top of looking at ways to reduce our expenditures.”
Zahorchak suggested this might involve making some difficult decisions like approving staff furloughs and tax raises, but it could also more unexpectedly mean increasing investment in areas like teacher salaries, which are currently ranked lowest in Allegheny County.
Increasing educator compensation could help the district retain quality teaching staff and stave off student outflows into charter and cyber schools, Zahorchak argued.
With close to a third of the district’s entire budget going to charter school tuition, Zahorchak said reducing this expense by attracting students back into the district must be part of the recovery strategy.
A separate effort must be made to lobby the state for a fairer deal with charter school expenses, Zahorchak added.
“Without a doubt, our biggest threat is charter schools,” he said.
Zahorchak encouraged the committee to think outside of simple economic practices and stressed that success will only come when members with different skill sets work together around strategic goals.
“Everything we do should be done by design,” Zahorckak said. “...I want you to think in terms of how things are going to look a year from now, two years from now and five years from now.”
The committee – comprised of residents, teachers, administrators, school board members and several external representatives – will spend the next several months developing a plan to lead the district into economic recovery. If all goes as expected, the plan will be submitted to the school board for review Nov. 12 and will move from there to Harrisburg to await PDE approval.
“I believe we have to be a team to help this district move forward,” he said. “I want everyone here on this advisory board to have a voice.”