Spotlight on school funding: Greater Johnstown's Arcurio set to testify at state trial

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Nov. 10—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — A state trial regarding education funding in Pennsylvania brought against the Gov. Tom Wolf, the state Legislature and others in 2014 is set to begin on Friday, and Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Amy Arcurio will take the stand to share her district's story.

"I'm very proud to be able to be there to bring light to this subject," Arcurio said.

The focal point of this challenge is that the state's school funding system violates Pennsylvania's constitution, which says the general assembly "shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth."

"We are consistently left with making very difficult decisions with what will we put our money to this year," Arcurio said.

According to a 2020 study by independent New Jersey organization EdBuild, her district has a 42% poverty rate with nearly 3,000 students enrolled — 50% of them being nonwhite.

Greater Johnstown is one of six districts — along with William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley — that filed suit in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Other plaintiffs include an association of 150 rural and small schools, as well as students, parents and the Pennsylvania NAACP.

That document named the governor, the state secretary of education, legislative leaders and the state Board of Education as defendants.

The suit claims that state officials have known for a decade that Pennsylvania's schools are "badly underfunded."

The trial has taken this long to be scheduled because in 2015, the Commonwealth Court dismissed it, deeming the case not "justiciable," which means the court could not decide the matter.

The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which overturned the decision and remanded it back to the lower court in 2017.

Since then, the two sides have been engaged in discovery.

The trial, which will take place at the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg, was then set to take place this summer but was pushed back to October and postponed again due to a medical emergency of an attorney in the case.

Gerald Zahorchak, former Pennsylvania secretary of education and current University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown education chairman, was the superintendent of Greater Johnstown at the time the suit was filed.

"It terms of equity, there are so many districts who cannot get to a level of adequate funding to get students on grade level," Zahorchak said. "There's about 40 districts that have property-rich communities and spend an adequate amount of money and don't need additional state funding."

Pennsylvania has roughly 500 public schools.

According to Fund Our Schools PA, a consortium of The Education Law Center-PA and The Public Interest Law Center assisting with the case, during the 2018-19 school year 86% of children in the commonwealth did not receive adequate funding according to state law.

That group also claims there's a more than $4 billion gap between what districts get and what they need.

The Fund Our Schools PA's site says Greater Johnstown is annually "short $12,797,050 of the PA benchmark for basic adequacy."

Arcurio said the district always has "to do much more with much less."

That leads to a lack of needed teachers, aids, therapists and more, including outdated or rundown facilities.

The superintendent gave the example of having just two reading specialists at the elementary school, which has roughly 1,000 students.

Zahorchak agreed.

He said the end result is that more educators, tutors and specialized support are needed to properly prepare children for life after school.

"We have a failed system at the top," he said.

During a press conference held by the education and public interest law centers on Nov. 5, representatives said the decision in this case will shape the trajectory of children for years to come.

"It's been seven years in the waiting," Public Interest Law Center Legal Director Mimi Mc- Kenzie said, "but parents and students in Pennsylvania's underfunded school districts are finely going to get their day in court. ... You're finally going to get to hear the stories of the petitioners in this case.

"It's a story where children who need the most often get the least. It's a story of rural and urban and suburban communities who really have been on the losing end of economic forces that they cannot raise enough funds to ensure that their children can fully participate in the economy."

Deborah Gordon Klehr, Education Law Center executive director, said the "commonwealth's own assessments" show how unprepared students in low-wealth districts are for college or a career.

She also noted that low-wealth districts such as Greater Johnstown cannot raise the funds needed despite having high tax rates.

Additionally, "50% of Black students and 40% of Latinx students in Pennsylvania live in the districts in the bottom fifth of local wealth," Klehr said.

Throughout litigation that's expected to take eight to 10 weeks, Fund Our Schools PA will provide daily updates on its website and live-stream the trial.

If the judge rules in favor of the districts, parents and others, then an order will be issued for the state legislature to correct the issue by properly expanding funding for Pennsylvania's public schools.

Klehr expects that could lead to a multi-year implementation of a plan following closure of the case; however, a concrete timeline is not set.

Arcurio said additional funding would be life-changing for the students of Greater Johnstown.

She, Zahorchak and the others are optimistic about the trial.

"I hope the sophisticated citizenry will dig deep and investigate this case and come at it with an open mind," Zahorchak said. "I hope the information will compel us to do something for the children."

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