Mars Area faces $1.4 million deficit

Cyber charter schools blamed

November 7, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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ADAMS TWP — The pandemic has caused a scarcity of supplies, food and materials over the last few months. Now, school districts — including Mars Area — are facing a shortage of their own. “The district is facing a financial challenge,” said Jill Swaney, Mars Area business manager, Wednesday night during a virtual board meeting. “We're looking at a $1.4 million deficit.”

Swaney said the deficit is strictly a side-effect of the pandemic.

It's coming from a recent uptick in parents withdrawing their children from the district and instead enrolling them in cyber charter schools, to deal with COVID-19.

More than 200 students have left the district in this capacity, according to Swaney.

She asked the board to have a public finance meeting next week to specifically discusses ways the district can meet the problem head-on.

Swaney said she doesn't see a way to address the deficit through the district's regular budget.

“The board's going to have to make some decisions on what to do with that,” she said. “When you're looking at a million dollars … you're looking at staffing.”

In Pennsylvania, districts are responsible for covering tuition costs for students who attend charter schools but live within the district.

Tuition can range from $10,000 to $23,000 per students, according to Swaney.

Mars Area does have a cyber program. However, Swaney said not many parents this year chose this option.

“Some did,” Swaney said, “which we are very thankful for.”

Tuition for Mars Area Cyber Academy — which provides curriculum from Waterfront Learning via Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 for all grades — is $3,800 per elementary student and $5,000 per secondary student.

Mars Area Cyber Academy doesn't have additional costs associated with special education students.

Swaney said she's concerned how the deficit caused by the students that left will affect Mars' 2021-22 budget.

“Because those students are still enrolled (in Mars), we have to account for them in the next year's budget,” Swaney said.

Swaney also predicted the shortage will affect everything from the district's programming to staff negotiations. Teachers have now been working for more than 120 days without a new contract.

There are some bright spots. Swaney reminded the board that as soon as a student withdraws from cyber charter school, tuition payments stop.

“We have had a trickle of students returning,” Swaney said. “Not enough.”

Swaney said the 2020-21 budget is going as scheduled, despite being passed at a deficit of about $1.9 million. She is optimistic about breaking even at the close of the fiscal year.

“I have no reason to believe we won't make up that deficit,” Swaney said.

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Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal