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State budget process, mandated costs bedevil Pennsylvania schools

| Sunday, June 18, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

It's the same problem, year after year: School districts across the state must adopt budgets for the upcoming school year before knowing how much money they'll receive in state funding.

And as mandated costs — programs and services public schools are required to provide according to state and federal laws — continue to increase, district administrators, school board directors and public school advocates say it's harder than ever to balance district budgets.

“Unfortunately, more money will be going out of districts just on pension costs, special education costs and charter school costs,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Schools are at a tipping point, he said. They simply can't keep up with rising mandated costs.

Gov. Tom Wolf released a budget plan in March that proposed a $100 million increase in basic education funding, a $25 million increase in special education funding and a total of $75 million for early childhood education. The plan also included nearly $9 million for state universities. The House budget plan keeps most of that funding intact but reduces new early childhood education funding to $25 million.

None of that new funding is certain until Harrisburg passes a state budget. As it is for school districts, the deadline to adopt a state budget is June 30. But there's no guarantee lawmakers will meet the deadline. The state adopted the 2015-16 budget in March 2016, nine months after the deadline. The impasse threatened to close schools.

All of this gives school districts little room for error when planning budgets. Many have furloughed teachers, avoided filling vacant teaching positions and reduced student programs and activities to save money.

A recent study conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials showed that 52 school districts — about 15 percent — of the 332 surveyed are considering increasing class sizes during the 2017-18 school year. Proposed budget cuts will lead 40 school districts to reduce elective courses next school year.

The uncertainty is compounded by a proposed $50 million cut to state transportation subsidies included in both the House and Wolf's budget plans; however, neither proposal explains how those cuts would be distributed.

“To make this happen, there would have to be changes to the transportation formula,” said Jeff Ammerman, director of member assistance at the school business officials group.

School districts use these funds to offset the cost of maintaining their own fleets of buses or to contract with outside bus companies. Changing bus routes and using more fuel-efficient vehicles are factors school districts consider when budgeting for transportation costs.

These subsidies cover on average about half a school district's transportation costs, according to the state Department of Education. Districts are not required to provide transportation to students who attend district schools. The district is required to provide transportation for students who choose to attend charter schools and to special needs students who must attend classes off-site.

An analysis conducted by the school business officials group shows that reducing subsidies equally across school districts could result in inequity. Poor, rural districts would be hit the hardest, Ammerman said.

Although the governor signed a pension reform bill into law last week, experts say it is not likely to ease the pressure of rising pension costs in the short term.

“It doesn't really solve much of the problem,” said Ed Fuller, associate professor of education at Penn State. “From what I've read, it's just scratching at the surface of the larger issue that the state didn't put enough money into pensions years ago. And they can't ever make that back up.”

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter at Jamie_Martines.

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