PHILIPSBURG — Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera stopped at the Philipsburg-Osceola Middle School Thursday afternoon to talk with administration, board members, faculty and students as part of the ongoing Schools That Teach tour.
Rivera and P-O Superintendent Dr. Gregg Paladina met with The Progress prior to meeting administration and others to talk about the Schools That Teach and its purpose.
Rivera said Gov. Tom Wolf and his Administration has tagged the phrases of “Schools That Teach,” Jobs That Pay” and “Government That Works.” For the better part of four years, Rivera and others within the Wolf Administration have been touring the schools.
“It allows us to visit schools and school districts with more intentionality,” Rivera said. “At the end of the day, it also really hits home with giving us an opportunity to connect with Gregg (Paladina) and the administration and to visit other school districts like P-O to hear first and foremost how policy impacts practice, but to also observe practice and make recommendations around what policies would best benefit teaching and learning at the local level. If you don’t engage the local community — if you don’t connect with kids — then how do you know what you’re doing and how it’s making a difference? That’s really the whole foundation behind the Schools That Teach tour.”
In that time, Rivera has visited more than 150 school districts and the rest of the administrative team is in the 200s.
Rivera said one of the things he enjoys seeing is the interaction between “students and faculty, faculty and administration, administration and the community at large” when stepping into classrooms.
“You walk away really getting a better understanding of the climate, the culture, the investments,” Rivera said. “The governor ... has been making significant investments financially in schools, so how is that money being utilized?”
Paladina said when the Wolf Administration contacted them about visiting, he was excited to allow Rivera to “see the grant money in action.”
“We have $230,000 that we have received this year alone in (Pennsylvania Department of Education) state initiated projects through the governor, the legislature and Rivera’s leadership,” Paladina said.
$180,000 of that has gone toward safety at the district, $35,000 was toward Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — otherwise known as STEM — and $15,000 was for computers.
“Our district is 68 percent funded from the state,” Paladina said. “Raising taxes to the (index) alone that’s allowed by law ... only gives us about $180,000. With the Department of Education willing to offset some of that really helps us earn a level playing field with the districts that have much more resources than us.”
One of the big priorities of the future that Rivera mentioned was the continued need to advocate for basic education funding, while also mentioning cost mitigation opportunities.
“The governor has been really vocal around charter schools,” Rivera said. “We’re going to look to specifically address some of the poor charter school policies.”
Rivera stressed the Wolf Administration is not “anti-charter school,” but rather they feel the policies are outdated and would like to work with the General Assembly to try and improve those.
“For example, we know here in Philipsburg-Osceola in 2018-19, the special education expenditures in charter schools were $26,000 per student,” Rivera said. “For non-special education students, it was a little over $15,800 per student.”
Overall, the district spent $661,000 last year on charter/cyber schools and hope in the future that number can drop.
“We’ve been taking efforts to push our own charter school here, but the money (spent now) could go to hiring a dozen teachers,” Paladina said. “We just want equal funding and we want equity in the funding.”
Paladina said the district can spend anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 per student while a charter/cyber school costs $26,000 for the same student.
“A student here gets a P-O degree,” Paladina said. “They get to participate in all our activities and our degree is more respected. It’s such a better process. If the parents of cyber/charter schools would give us a chance, I believe they would be happy.”
Paladina said he’s thankful the Wolf Administration is looking into the matter, as that money can be used towards the district instead, stating it can be a “burden on the taxpayer.”
“The cost of retirement alone and the escalation of cyber schools, we can’t keep up without making adjustments,” Paladina said. “The secretary and the governor realize that we need to keep more taxpayer dollars in the district is incredible for us.”
Rivera said there are great charter/cyber schools out there in the state and many communities do indeed need that option, but “the law is so outdated” and it hasn’t kept up with technology, work the school districts are doing, and the needs of families in various communities.
“How do we continue to expect all schools — charter and traditional — to follow a law and to kind of bear the burdens of that law that doesn’t take into account contemporary educational needs and opportunities?” Rivera asked.
Paladina said he, too, isn’t putting down someone’s needs for an alternative education that charter and cyber schools provide.
“We’re just asking people to look at the funding and pay what it truly costs them to educate that student,” Paladina said.
With the $230,000 the school received last year from the state, Paladina said it’s allowed them to implement a “one-and-one” initiative that gives each student in grades 5-12 a tablet, metal detectors in the middle and high school and its own police force since state police had dissolved the Philipsburg barracks years ago.
“It’s kept drugs out of school,” Paladina said. “We have caught students with drugs coming into school so that’s kept it out of our building. That one-on-one contact, our principals cite in the middle school and the high school, just seeing the students and having them walk past you in the morning and having them (show contents), it’s really provided a safer opportunity for our students, particularly at the high school.”
Rivera then talked with administrators, board members and staff during a roundtable discussion. A tour of the school capped off the day as Rivera was able to see many of the activities in action that the state is funding.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be here — to share, to learn — and to really engage,” Rivera said. “But more importantly, to celebrate the great things that are happening here and throughout the community.”