Meadville Tribune

February 23, 2013

Rural school districts on short end of proposed funding hikes?

By John Finnerty
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget could be short-changing many rural schools.

Corbett is calling for $90 million in additional basic education funding — a statewide increase of 1.65 percent. But only eight of 57 rural districts surveyed will receive as much or more as the statewide average.

Republican lawmakers said that examing the rate of increased funding only tells a part of the story because many rural and poor districts are already heavily-subsidized.

Senate Democrat leaders earlier this week noted that the funding formula creates definite winners, such as York Suburban, which would see its subsidy increase 5.68 percent; Wyomissing in Berks County, which would see its subsidy increase 5.96 percent; and the Derry School District in Dauphin County, which would see its subsidy increase 4.79 percent.

The Education Law Center, an advocacy group, focused on Wyomissing, a suburb of Reading, which would see its funding increase just 1 percent, in describing the governor’s budget as an example of “the rich get richer.”

Republican Rep. Brad Roae, whose Sixth District includes Crawford County, noted that the schools in his district already receive a greater share of their income from the state.

“The average school district in Pennsylvania gets about 38 percent of its funding from the state,” Roae said.

Pointing to schools in his legislative district, Roae said that in 2010-2011, the percentage of school funding that comes from the state at districts was: 45 percent at Crawford Central, 53 percent at PENNCREST; and 58 percent at Titusville.

In those cases, Crawford Central stands to receive the largest percentage bump in basic education funding, according to data provided by the Department of Education. Crawford Central would get $250,251 in increased basic education under Corbett’s plan, an increase right on par with the state average subsidy increase of 1.65 percent. PENNCREST stands to get an increase of $231,642 or 1.28 percent, while Titusville’s increase of $144,055 would be just a 1.1 percent increase on its existing subsidy. Conneaut’s increase of $149,743 is 1.4 percent.

Republican Rep. Michele Brooks, whose 17th District includes Crawford County, said that if the subsidy per pupil cost is taken into account, rural schools compare favorably.

She compared the wealthy and growing Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County to the districts in Mercer County.

Lower Merion will receive an additional $100,000 in subsidy under Corbett’s plan, but with 7,000 students, that amounts to an extra $14 per student. The Greenville Area School Distict in Mercer County is also supposed to get another $100,000. But with just 1,600 students, the increased aid will amount to an extra $68 per student.

The distribution of the basic education funding looms large because school districts have gone two years without an increase in state funding and there is a little consensus about the governor’s other main strategy for providing additional funding to public schools — liquor privatization — funneled through a grant program targeting science, technology, engineering and math programs; school safety; early childhood education and individualized learning programs.

Corbett recently said that he hopes schools would use the money to try out new programs, then when the state funds are exhausted, local schools would be in a position to decide whether the programs are worth keeping.

Republican lawmakers expressed concern about designating “one-time” money for education.

Rep. Fred Keller, R-85, of Snyder County, said that if the governor and legislators believe those educational programs are worth spending money on, they ought to find a designated, permanent source of funding for them.

Roae compared the proposal to the handling of stimulus funding. After those dollars were exhausted, school districts complained that the state had slashed their funding.

“The proposed budget includes record spending of state money for education,” Roae said. “If we give schools an additional $250 million a year for four years in a row from privatization money, five years from now they would probably say we cut $250 million when that temporary four-year program ended.”

Roae added that he would rather see any revenue generated by privatizing the liquor system be spent fixing bridges.

Brooks shared Roae’s reservations about providing a temporary infusion of cash to schools. She recalled having to face criticism in her district as constituents misinterpreted the end of stimulus funding.

In one district in particular, they were saving they had lost $650,000 in funding, but the state had only reduced their funding by $112,000, Brooks said. “I don’t want to diminish $112,000 but, there is a big difference between $112,000 and $650,000.”

She added that districts had been warned by the state that Pennsylvania would not be able to replace the stimulus money when it was exhausted.

“We can’t print money,” she said. “They can print money in Washington, but we can’t.”

Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.