Fayette County school officials question state funding cuts to education

| Monday, Aug. 20, 2012, 10:55 p.m.

Fayette County teachers, administrators, school board members and taxpayers asked questions Monday night about the recently enacted 2012-2013 state budget that locks in roughly $1 billion in public education cutbacks implemented in Gov. Tom Corbett's budget, including a $11.3 million loss to local school districts.

The Future of Public Education Forum was hosted by state Rep. Timothy S. Mahoney, D-South Union Township, at the State Theatre Center for the Arts in Uniontown where about 100 people attended.

“Public education is under attack in Pennsylvania,” said Mahoney, a member of the State Appropriations Committee.

Panelists included Mahoney; Jeff Clay, executive director of the Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS); Debbie Reeves, appropriations analyst; Miriam Fox, executive director of the State Appropriations Committee; and state Rep. Joseph Markosek of the 25th District.

The following state education funding facts were presented to the public.

• Pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade public school classroom funding as compared to last year is “flat-funded” in the current state budget.

• The General Assembly added $49 million to the basic education funding appropriation to provide supplemental financial aid to financially distressed school districts.

• A new tax credit enables “vouchers-lite” — The Educational Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program. The tax credit program makes available $50 million in tax credits to businesses that contribute to scholarship organizations for the purposes of providing school vouchers to students living in low-achieving public schools to attend another participating public or non-public school.

• The enacted 2012-13 budget provides flat funding for institutions of higher education compared to 2011-2012. However, these funding levels are significantly lower than last year because of the major cuts imposed in last year's budget.

“I decided to host this meeting because I have been asked about the financing of the state budget and pension system,” Mahoney said.

Fox said Gov. Corbett's first budget slashed $1 billion in education cuts and another $764,000 in human and social service cutbacks.

The cutbacks had a negative impact on school districts across the state, according to Reeves. The average school district in Pennsylvania receives 32 percent of its funding from the state, and Fayette County districts receive 55 percent from the state.

“The $1 billion cutbacks in education in the governor's budget last year resulted in a $11.3 million loss to local school districts that was not put back into the budget this year,” Reeves said.

In addition to the significant cutbacks, Clay said the Public School Employees' Retirement System has an unfunded liability of $26.5 billion.

“This is putting significant stress on school districts and taxpayers across the state,” Clay said.

Mary Macar, principal at Laurel Highlands Middle School, asked if the district's $39.8 million building/renovation project at the high school will receive state reimbursement under the current state budget cutbacks.

Fox said school districts that have received approval for Plancon H, a step in the construction process, will receive funding, but other school districts that are not as far along in the construction process may not receive state reimbursement.

Laurel Highlands Superintendent Jesse Wallace said he will be contacting officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) because the high school renovation process has only been approved for Plancon D.

Macar also asked if the state will continue to fully fund pensions for retiring teachers in the next five years.

“The pensions will continue to be funded by the state,” Fox said. “Employee contributions that are currently at 2.36 percent will continue to increase.” In addition to teacher pensions, Macar said she is also concerned about whether or not Corbett has plans to tax big businesses and allocate some of the money for education and human services.

“A tax credit was just given to Shell Oil,” Fox said. “Gov. Corbett has made a firm commitment that he was not going to raise taxes when he was campaigning.” Mahoney said there is currently $4 million in taxes on the table with the Marcellus shale gas industry that has not been allocated.

“Act 13 has been put aside because it is being challenged in the courts,” Markosek said. “The communities want to have more power. The communities say Act 13 is too far on the side of the gas industry. It is being determined in the courts right now.” When Corbett took office, Reeves said an estimated 43,000 people in Pennsylvania lost their adult basic health care coverage.

Mahoney said the next two years will be very difficult for public education and human services.

Fox said recent state education cutbacks will cause local real estate taxes to significantly increase.

Cindy Ekas is a freelance writer.

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