When Pennsylvania passed its budget for the new fiscal year this summer, it included an additional $1.8 billion in education spending.
However, what sounds like a purely great development for school districts has been met with mixed results locally. While all Crawford County school districts saw more money, the amount came up short for some while an unexpected benefit to others.
Kristen Eckart, business manager for PENNCREST School District, said the district’s basic education funding increased by 2.8 percent, to $19.7 million. While a benefit, she said initial projections she received from state government indicated the school district would receive $20.4 million.
Special education funding also came up short of what was initially expected. PENNCREST had anticipated $2.79 million, but instead is getting $2.72 million. It’s still a 5.3 percent increase, but not what was hoped.
“It’s not large enough to be too much of a worry,” Eckart said. “We’ll tweak what we need to tweak, but we got more back in the homestead money.”
Eckart was referring to the state’s homestead/farmstead exclusion program, which lessens property tax on some homeowners while reimbursing the school district. The amount came in higher than expected this year for PENNCREST.
Eckart said the experience has taught her to budget on the “lower side” of what the state projects. She said it’d also be better if the school district budgets weren’t due at the same time as the state budget.
Meanwhile, Conneaut Business Manager Greg Mayle was more celebratory on the results. Conneaut received $625,148 in additional basic education funding, $120,837 in special education funding, and qualifies for two new grants under the budget of $129,004 each, for a total of $1.3 million in new money.
“While it wasn’t as much as the governor’s original proposal, I was definitely pleasantly surprised by it,” Mayle said.
Mayle believes the funding will help close the school district’s operating deficit. While Conneaut has been able to balance its budget for next school year, it is only thanks to COVID-19 stimulus money which is set to run out in the next several years. Mayle has repeatedly cautioned the Conneaut School Board to be aware of the deficit and prepare to tackle it in future fiscal years.
Still, especially with the increased basic and special education funding, Mayle is overall happy with the result.
“Those two items alone are nearly a third of our budget,” he said. “So very important, very significant.”
Crawford Central also received a larger-than-expected 8 percent increase in basic education funding, according to Business Manager Guy O’Neil. This year the district will receive $18.4 million, $1.5 million more than it received last year.
For special education, Crawford Central will see an increase of 9.5 percent, from $2.9 million to $3.3 million.
For a district that is “running a deficit,” O’Neil said, the increase in state funding was important, but the short-term gain raised questions about the future.
“We’re happy for this year,” he said, “but that’s a lot more money than normal.”
In fact, O’Neil said, the increase in state funding to the district was about four times greater than normal.
“If they’re giving us all the extra money but then are going to take it away,” he continued, “then we’re going to have to be cutting things the following year because the state’s not going to give us the amount we got this year — so, we’ll see.”
It’s a position school business managers are used to, since districts are required to submit final budgets to the state before they know definitively how much funding the state budget will provide them. Without final figures from the state, districts do their best to guess the amount they’ll be getting based on previous years. While the increased funding this year helps districts, it also increases uncertainty when it comes to the annual budget guessing game.