Funding the 500: ‘We’ve been overlooked for years.’ NEPA districts wait for level playing field

In Hazleton and Old Forge, officials each are waiting for a funding boost

By: - Wednesday June 21, 2023 6:30 am

Funding the 500: ‘We’ve been overlooked for years.’ NEPA districts wait for level playing field

In Hazleton and Old Forge, officials each are waiting for a funding boost

By: - 6:30 am

Graduation at Hazleton Area High School (Submitted photo).

Graduation at Hazleton Area High School (Submitted photo).

HAZLETON, Pa. –  The Hazleton Area School District is the largest in Northeastern Pennsylvania. And fairly funded public schools could mean big changes for the school system, school officials told the Capital-Star. 

Superintendent Dr. Brian T. Uplinger knows how much the district needs that money.

“We’ve been overlooked for years,” he said. “The state revenue has not looked kindly on this area for many years.” 

In the six years Uplinger has been superintendent, the Hazleton Area district has grown from 11,500 students to 13,000. That’s almost twice the size of neighboring Wilkes-Barre Area School District, and 3,000 more than the Scranton School District across the border in Lackawanna County.

Hazleton Area School District Superintendent Brian T. Uplinger (Submitted Photo)

“We’re strapped for space just because of the large number of students that are coming [in],” he said.

In February, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania’s current school funding system is unconstitutional because its reliance on property taxes disadvantages children from lower income communities. She ordered state lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration to come up with a fix. 

A change in the way that Pennsylvania pays for public education could make a big difference in Hazleton.

For example, Hazleton Area has to have a maximum of eight students in an autistic support classroom. That means more cramped spaces for other kids. New money would bring new facilities, which would mean better space for everyone.

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Another benefit of a change in the system is that the district could make those improvements without relying on local taxpayers. 

“The burden should not be on the taxpayer,” Uplinger said. “We have an elderly population. There is a lot more burden on the homeowner and fixed-income people.” 

In Old Forge

In the Old Forge School District, in suburban Scranton, Superintendent Erin Keating and Business Manager Brian Rinaldi said their district would see an increase if the state changes the way it pays for public education.

“Compared to our like-sized peers, we already are coming in well under the mark of what other districts would receive,” Keating said. The district, which is just 3.7 square miles, and includes about 1,000 kids, making it one of the smallest districts in the state. Like other districts, it contends with a tuition drain from charter schools.

“That hurts us,” Rinaldi said.

She and Rinaldi want to see education funding reform that benefits all districts.

“Everyone is still basically living on the funding that they’ve had since the mid-90s,“ Keating said.

So what could they do with a funding bump?

Keating pointed out some of the programs the district was able to develop thanks to money that came during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Old Forge invested in technology and interventions to boost literacy. Those funds were a one-time shot in the arm.

Keating compared her district to another small one in the region, Lackawanna Trail. Despite having a similar number of students (Between 900 and 1,000), Old Forge’s budget is $4 million less.

The lack of money has kept Old Forge from offering programs such as foreign languages and AP classes. 

“Your zip code should not determine the educational offerings that you’re exposed to,” Keating said.

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Patrick Abdalla
Patrick Abdalla

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.