By Elizabeth Perry
A court ruling has determined that the way public schools are funded violates students’ rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution – a criticism Sto-Rox officials have wielded for decades.
Superintendent Megan Van Fossan helms the Sto-Rox School District in McKees Rocks and said she has followed the case very closely.
“Our kids at Sto-Rox deserve the SAME opportunities as students in well-funded districts,” Van Fossan said via email.
In the Feb. 7 ruling, Judge Renée Jubelirer determined education is a “fundamental right explicitly and/or implicitly derived from the Pennsylvania Constitution,” and the right had been violated.
In 2009, when Van Fossan was with the McGuffey School District, she testified before the House Special Education subcommittee about inadequate funding for special education in schools. Whether the ruling will have a direct impact on Sto-Rox’s economic woes remains to be seen.
Sto-Rox has been enrolled in the state education department’s recovery program since July 2021, following successive years of fund balance deficits.
Since the beginning of the school year, 22 teachers have left the district and last month the principal of the high school resigned. The principal cited a lack of resources and overwork as the reason.
Van Fossan said Sto-Rox has historically been underfunded.
That history goes back to the Great Depression, when many neighborhoods were “red-lined,” McKees Rocks among them, because of a high immigrant and black population. A report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that 74% of redlined districts are low to middle-income today.
Red-lining is a practice in which certain populations were barred from getting government-backed loans based on their racial or ethnic background. Whole neighborhoods were crossed out of consideration and cut out of access to the generational wealth owning property brings.
The disparity among school districts with low and high property values and incomes was depriving students of “equal protection of law,” according to Judge Jubelirer’s opinion.
“We want to believe in this country that a meritocracy exists, but the fact of the matter is a child’s chances are more determined by the property within their community,” said Tony Skender, a former Sto-Rox educator and superintendent who is also a founding member of McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation. “This situation is not unlike an educational apartheid.”
The Sto-Rox School district has one of the highest tax efforts in the county, according to Skender. He notes that a taxpayer in Stowe Township or McKees Rocks is likely to pay a greater percentage of their per capita income in school taxes than a tax-payer living in a suburban school district.
Currently, the school property tax rate is 26.32 mils for Sto-Rox. The district is expected, as part of the state’s recovery program directives, to raise taxes to a 28.0 millage rate, which would put it in the top five of districts in Allegheny County, said Paul Sroka, Sto-Rox business manager.
Even with that additional contribution, only 25% of Sto-Rox’s budget will be made up of local property tax revenue. The rest is provided by the state at nearly 50% and federal funding, Sroka said.
Skender was assistant superintendent at Sto-Rox when the district lent support to a suit filed by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools which began in 1991 and stretched throughout the 1990s. Though they technically won, the battle resulted in little to no tangible improvements to school funding.
Skender said he was more hopeful with the latest ruling, because it went further than the previous one in identifying the problem with Pennsylvania schools, and could result in real change.
“It goes at the idea that this system is discriminatory. It systematically discriminates against poor kids,” Skender said.
The current lawsuit, brought by six school districts, PARSS, several parents and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, has determined the commonwealth’s funding formula is inherently unfair to economically disadvantaged students, specifically students of color.
Edward J. Albert, executive director of PARRS which helped bring the current suit, said the 40-year-old organization’s cornerstone is about fair and equitable funding for schools.
“There’s a significant difference between have and have nots,” Albert said.
Albert said the ruling affirmed what the organization has been telling the state for years – educators understand the needs of their students, they just require adequate resources to teach them. Albert said he also had hope for more equitable funding.
“I’m looking forward to working together with all parties so we can resolve the funding issue and begin making a difference for all kids in the State of Pennsylvania,” Albert said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education and administrators named in the suit, including Gov. Josh Shapiro, have 30 days to appeal the ruling.
Shapiro said his administration was reviewing the opinion and “determining next steps.” He did not specify what those steps might be.
"Creating real opportunity for our children begins in our schools, and I believe every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment, regardless of their ZIP code," Shapiro said via statement.
Van Fossan echoed that sentiment.
“We hope that all districts receive the needed funding. More specifically, we want the funding formula to consider the actual need of students,” Van Fossan said.