Locals: State education budget fails

The recently passed state budget failed to address the financial burden cyber schools are placing on local school districts, according to area school superintendents who, while not surprised by the final allocations, criticized the governor for not doing enough.

“He didn’t get anything done with cyber schools. He didn’t get anything done with pension reform. He didn’t get anything done with transportation. He didn’t get anything done with liquor (the privatization of wine and spirits stores Gov. Tom Corbett proposed earlier this year, which would’ve added $1 billion to education over four years),” said Robert Grantier, Loyalsock Township School District superintendent.

Most county school officials interviewed by the Sun-Gazette agreed with Grantier, saying the lack of movement on cyber school regulations was “frustrating.”

“We would like to see a change in the tuition payment calculations to cyber charter schools,” said Grant Evangelisti, Montgomery business manager.

Grantier said there was potential legislation on the table that would not only change the calculation of payment school districts must make if one of their students attend a cyber charter school, but to make sure such schools are following the same guidelines and hitting the same benchmarks as public schools.

Richard Emery, superintendent of Jersey Shore Area School District, also said that cyber charter school reform was the most important aspect left out of the budget.

“It’s frustrating. It’s just very frustrating. … I just can’t understand our governor and his inability to communicate with the legislators of our state. It just blows me away,” Grantier said.

Dr. Don Adams, superintendent of Williamsport Area School District, said the moratorium on construction projects also could affect the district going forward. Adams went on to say that the delay in reimbursement from the state for construction project is a potential challenge as the district is in the middle of two such projects.

“The moratorium on funding for school construction projects also presents funding challenges for us,” he said. “This may result in delayed payments to our district which are needed to fund our current construction projects.”

And the same challenges of health care and pension contributions await school districts, despite an increase over last year’s allocations.

Dr. Mark Stamm, superintendent of South Williamsport Area School District, said while the increase helps, districts still are facing “significant financial challenges with the looming increases in pension contributions and health care.”

“The disappointment is that the minimal state increases do not come close to addressing the growing costs of health care insurance and state retirement contributions,” Adams added.

Overall, with rising costs and minimal increases, districts said the burden still will fall on local shoulders.

“The governor and legislators boast that the state had a no-tax-increase budget. By failing to adequately fund public schools, those tax increases are passed down to the local level and become the problem of every local board of education,” Adams said.

But not all parts of the budget were criticized.

For the most part, superintendents said the budget was fairly similar to the one the governor proposed in February. Since there weren’t major cuts or increases from the proposal, districts said they weren’t surprised by the final budget.

The state budget increased the basic education funding subsidy for public school districts by $122.5 million overall, or 2.3 percent from the 2012-13 fiscal year.

“Gov. Corbett’s final budget was very similar to his initial proposal in February. Since his message and fiscal priorities have remained consistent throughout his administration, we are able to build a fairly accurate budget picture early,” Stamm said.

And despite only seeing small increases over February’s proposal – which superintendents said wouldn’t make a huge difference in their already-approved budgets – all districts saw an increase over last year’s funding. The eight county public school districts received an increase over last year’s budget of $1,094,693.

On average, districts received an increase of $136,837. Increases ranged from $57,088 for Montgomery to $391,694 for Williamsport.

Emery said he did appreciate the increase, no matter how minimal.

“We were planning on what the governor presented (in February) so anything above that was a positive,” he said.

The $11.4 million increase in early education funding also was applauded by districts.

“It was nice to see the Pre-K Counts grants continue but it was still a very much status-quo budget,” said Michael Pawlik, East Lycoming School District superintendent.

In the realm of higher education, public universities saw flat funding, while Pennsylvania College of Technology will see a $2 million increase.

Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour, Penn College president, was pleased with the additional funding.

“We were extremely pleased to be recognized for our work and contribution to economic development within the Commonwealth,” she said. “Our students and graduates play an important role in that development, and this additional funding will allow us to expand enrollment.”

Gilmour added that the increase will be “positive” for the future of the college.