Public Schools Can Do More with Less – If We Let Them

As families across Pennsylvania try to figure out how to do more with less in this difficult economy, our local public schools must also do the same.  But unlike fiscally sound kitchen-table decisions that can be made in the morning and implemented by lunch, elected school board members are forced to waste taxpayer money because of antiquated and unfair mandates from Harrisburg that do nothing to improve the quality of public education.

Although the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Commonwealth Foundation are policy opponents in the debate over school choice, we strongly agree on the need to give elected school boards the ability to better manage their taxpayer resources.

Public school boards are responsible for large budgets; however, the hands of these boards are often tied because state law restricts them from managing taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently. Mandates have a pervasive impact on school operations. Some are reasonable, many are not.

Take, for example, Pennsylvania’s 50-year-old “prevailing wage” law, which forces school districts and every other state government entity to pay inflated wages on construction projects costing greater than $25,000.  The “prevailing wage,” established in 1961 at double the cost of the average home, is not the local market rate for a carpenter, plumber or electrician, but the inflated wage rates established in labor union collective bargaining agreements.  On average, the prevailing wage is much higher than regular Pennsylvania construction wages for identical work on private projects.

Sadly, this isn’t just theory or rhetoric as the taxpayers in York County’s South Western School District recently found out.  When school roof repairs were needed, the initial contractor proposal came in at $84,504. However, since the total cost of the project exceeded the $25,000 threshold, the contractor was forced to revise the plan using prevailing wages.

The result? The total cost of the project increased from $84,504 to $126,825, an increase of 50 percent, for exactly the same product with the same skilled workers. The only difference is that the taxpayers in South Western School District got a $42,321 higher bill for absolutely no improvement in quality. 

Another example of tax-wasting mandates from Harrisburg is the inability of school districts to make personnel decisions.  Unlike private businesses and every other government entity, school districts are not permitted to reduce the size of their professional staff except under very limited circumstances.  Believe it or not, the inability to pay is not one of the reasons school boards are permitted to furlough employees.

No school board or administration enjoys cutting staff, but the grim reality today is that with scarce resources, many districts must downsize their operations.  Enacting legislation permitting furloughs for economic reasons should therefore be a high priority this spring for Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly.

However, how this should happen, as are so many other public policy matters, is just as important as why.  If a school district is forced to eliminate teaching positions, it is important for the school leadership team to be able to decide which positions to retain.  Some argue the decision should be solely on the basis of seniority – that is, the last person hired should be the first person let go.  We strongly disagree.

No private enterprise would accept such a provision or survive under it.  If school staff must be reduced because the budget must be balanced, school boards must be able to make program and furlough decisions based on what’s best for students.

Because public schools are being asked to do more with less money, Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly must give them the tools they need to meet the challenge.  By repealing the outdated and expensive “prevailing wage” law and giving school boards the ability to make important personnel decisions, school district are justly enabled to use taxpayer money more wisely and empower the very best resources for our children’s education.

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Thomas J. Gentzel is executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association ( and Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (