Local officials critical of education funding
School districts in Lycoming County are in line to receive increases in basic education and special education funding under Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget for 2017-18, but not enough to balance the rising costs of retirement, health care and general expenses that administrators cannot control, local school officials say.
“The state is not keeping up with its obligation, and it is affecting local taxpayers,” said Christina Bason, Montoursville Area School District superintendent.
Montoursville’s proposed state allocation is $6.99 million in basic education funding, a $332,000 increase from the 2016-17 allocation
of $6.66 million, according to the state Department of Education. Special education funding would see a $14,000 increase from $1.23 million to $1.25 million in the next school year.
Two mandated costs are retirement and cyberschools which continue to rise. In 2006, Montoursville paid $509,350 in retirement and in 2016, $3.17 million, according to Bason.
For cyberschools, the district paid $70,900 in 2006 and $270,800 last year, she said. If a student leaves the district to learn online, the district loses some basic education funding while it still has to pay for that student’s education.
With rising costs, the community has to pick up the slack with real estate taxes. She said the community pays for 56 percent of the overall cost of the district’s operations, while the state pays 42 percent and the federal government contributes the remaining 2 percent.
“It is so much money,” Bason said.
“If we could see relief through pension reform, we would be able to ensure our taxpayers that we are being diligent with tax dollars.”
Daphne Bowers, Montgomery Area School District superintendent, said she appreciates Wolf making education important in the budget but wants to see a solution for the funding issue.
“I do feel that (Wolf) is trying and that he is committed to funding public schools, but what was proposed in the budget is really not cutting it,” she said.
Montgomery could receive $5.21 million for basic education, which is a $210,800 increase from the 2016-17 allocation of $5 million, according to the department. The proposed special education allocation is $599,400, an $8,900 increase from last year’s $590,500.
There have been increases since Wolf’s governorship began, but Montgomery has not seen significant increases, specifically in regard to special education, Bowers said.
“We’re proposed to have an increase in special education but that doesn’t come close to helping us with the increases we’ve seen in the last year with our special education class,” she said.
There has been a 10-percent increase in the number of special education students from 2016 to now. The district cannot anticipate the number of students who may move into the district, she said.
Dr. Timothy S. Bowers, Williamsport Area School District superintendent, said the increased cost of retirement and health care takes away from the money the district will receive. Over the past couple of years, those costs have chewed up any additional state money, he said.
Williamsport could get $25.86 million for basic education, a $1.87 million increase from 2016-17 allocation of $23.89 million, according to the department. The special education proposed amount is $4.53 million, which is an increase of $75,000 from $4.46 million.
Meanwhile, as it works on next year’s district budget, the district’s retirement contribution will increase from 30 percent to 32.5 percent or $1.1 million, while health care will increase 10 percent or $120,000, according to district business manager Jeff Richards. Those combined increases are $1.22 million. After the increases, that leaves only $650,000 in basic education funding to operate the schools.
Not much to cut
As each district works to run more efficiently while spending less money, after doing that for multiple years, there is not much left to cut, Timothy Bowers said.
“We talk about five to six years ago, districts were cutting fat, then cutting muscle, and now cutting bone,” he said. “It’s getting to be pretty impossible to not have a negative impact on programming.”
Dr. Jill Wenrich, Jersey Shore Area School District superintendent, said Wolf’s focus on public education is a start to getting schools through from year to year.
Jersey Shore’s proposed amount is $13.04 million in basic education, which is a $471,300 increase from the 2016-17 allocation of $12.57 million, according to the department. There could be a $35,500 increase in special education from $1.77 million to $1.8 million.
“We can’t survive with less,” she said. “We’ve made the cuts and some of those cuts have been very devastating to the district.”
The level of funding for the district in the proposed budget is enough for it to maintain the “status quo” but does not permit adding new programs.
Michael Pawlik, East Lycoming School District superintendent, said expanding educational options for students is not possible without more money.
“We are always hoping for new money to try some new initiatives but it becomes more challenging,” he said.
East Lycoming’s proposed amount is $8.23 million for basic education, which is a $57,700 increase from the 2016-17 allocation of $8.17 million, according to the department. There could be a $15,300 increase in special education from last year’s $1.04 million to $1.05 million.
It is difficult for the governor to balance his dedication to education when the funds are not there, Pawlik said.
While the proposal increases funding for basic and special education, the amount of money for transportation would decrease by 9 percent, or $50,000 from $549,000 in 2016-17 to $499,000, according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed 2017-18 budget.
Pawlik also said there is a chance the decrease in transportation funding could eat up the increase the district would receive.
Craig Skaluba, Muncy School District superintendent, said he is uncertain whether the funds allocated for his district are going to make a major impact due to the increases for retirement and health care plus cuts in transportation. The hike in costs overshadows the funds received, he said.
Muncy’s proposed amount is $3.91 million in basic education funding, a $220,600 increase from last year’s $3.69 million allocation, according to the department. For special education, the proposed amount is $652,900, which is a $14,800 increase from 2016-17’s $638,100.
“School district costs are rising higher than what we’re getting funded for,” he said. “The transportation cut would offset the increases (in basic and special education).”
In geographically smaller districts such as Loyalsock Township, Superintendent Gerald McLaughlin said the impact of the decrease in transportation funds should be minimal.
Loyalsock Township’s proposed allocation is $3.21 million for basic education, a $431,800 increase from 2016-17 allocation of $2.77 million, according to the department. The special education proposed allocation is $740,700, which is a $14,000 increase from $726,700.
Dr. Mark Stamm, South Williamsport Area School District superintendent, said the governor has been more proactive and supportive about education, a dramatic change from years before.
Like other districts, he said he has not seen funds that will radically impact South Williamsport Area’s budget.
Its proposed amount for basic education is $6.1 million, a $332,000 increase from the 2016-17 allocation of $5.77 million, according to the department. It also could receive $854,000 for special education, which is a $13,000 increase from $841,000.
“When state revenue is down, you can’t pump money into public schools,” Stamm said.
Even with additional state funds, Stamm said the district will have a deficit of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As the state works out its budget, school districts must adopt their budgets.
The deadline for both levels of government is June 30. The state and its school districts work on a fiscal year of July 1 to June 30.