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Gov. Wolf refutes Wagner's claim that he seeks cuts from small districts

| Thursday, July 12, 2018, 11:23 p.m.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Gov. Tom Wolf clarified Thursday that he has no intention of seeking imminent cuts from so-called “overpaid” and shrinking school districts to compensate underpaid, growing ones — despite outcry earlier in the day from gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner that Wolf backs a proposal that would “decimate” Western Pennsylvania’s smallest schools.

“Tom Wolf, the guy who ran in 2014 as the education governor, who promised to put more money into education, is now saying ‘yes’ to a plan to decimate rural school districts. This is unacceptable,” Wagner, a Republican, said during a news conference at the Omni William Penn hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh.

That “sounds like complete nonsense,” Wolf, a Democrat, said of Wagner’s remarks hours later during an unrelated visit to an electrical workers trade union in Pittsburgh’s South Side.

“I ran four years ago on increasing education funding, and I will continue to do that,” Wolf told reporters, pointing to a $312 million year-over-year increase in state education spending in the 2018-19 budget he signed into law in late June. “Pennsylvania is a lagger when it comes to overall investment in education. We have a long way to go.”

Wagner — the York County businessman vying against Wolf in the Nov. 6 election — was referring to comments Wolf made during a June 29 news conference in Philadelphia. WHYY reported that Wolf surprised reporters there by saying he believes the state’s relatively new education funding formula approved two years ago should be applied to all school districts. Wolf later told WHYY that doing so would “take time.”

After years of bipartisan efforts, lawmakers approved the “fair-funding formula” in 2016 on the condition that it would only apply to new money; district coffers would continue to be protected by the state’s “hold harmless” clause, which says no district can get less money from the state than it did the previous year.

Districts with enrollment declines affected

Previously, the clause meant districts continued to receive as much or more money even when enrollment declined sharply, whereas growing districts didn’t get compensated for having more students.

The formula takes into account several factors, including poverty levels, local tax revenue capacity and student enrollment.

The change gave districts with declining populations smaller shares of new education money, but left alone funding levels set prior to the formula.

In 2018-19, just under 9 percent of Pennsylvania’s school district funding gets disbursed through the fair-funding formula, up from 2.7 percent in 2015-16, House Appropriations Committee data show.

On Thursday, Wagner joined state Republican Party Chairman Val DiGiorgio in blasting Wolf for seeming to suggest that 100 percent of school districts should be funded through the formula immediately.

The GOP news conference followed several press releases put out in recent days by Western Pennsylvanian state lawmakers criticizing Wolf and warning of drastic potential cuts — as much as 50 percent or more — looming for school districts in Armstrong and Butler counties. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, was one of them.

The hypothetical situation would reduce Allegheny County’s funding by $91 million and would reduce funding for school districts in 42 other Pennsylvania counties, a GOP analysis found.

Such a change would increase funding for districts with growing populations, including many in the southeastern part of the state.

Wagner and DiGiorgio suggested Wolf was proposing the change because there are fewer Democratic voters in the districts that stand to lose the most money.

“I have no idea what they’re talking about. … It almost sounds like it’s a political campaign here,” Wolf said with a chuckle. “I will continue doing what I’ve been doing, and that’s invest in education to make it fair and adequate.”

When it comes to applying the formula, Wolf said, “Yes, we need to phase that in over a period of time to make sure no one gets harmed, but we need to make sure we continue to invest in education.”

Wolf would not elaborate on a specific timeline or goal by which to have all school districts getting paid through the formula.

But Wolf acknowledged he has no unilateral power to do so.

Changing the disbursement process — such as by doing away with the hold-harmless clause altogether — would require a bill to clear the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Hold-harmless clause called ‘madness’

Prior to his bid for governor, Wagner had dismissed the hold-harmless provision as “madness.”

In 2015, a year before the funding formula was put in place, Wagner called for the elimination of the hold-harmless provision in an editorial in the Pottstown Mercury .

In a 2017 interview with News Talk 103.7 that touched on education, Wagner brought up Berks County’s declining student population to make a point.

“Last year, they might have gotten $5 million from the state and this year they will get $5 million, but their student population could have dropped by 10 percent, which means technically they’re receiving more per student than they did, say, several years ago. I mean this is why I made a decision to run for governor, because this is madness. We have got to do something,” Wagner said on the show.

Wagner said Thursday that he supports the hold-harmless provision now that the funding formula applies to all new money.

Next year, school districts overall are slated to get at least as much as the previous year, and many will get multimillion-dollar boosts.

The 2018-19 state budget — approved before the deadline in late June for the first time in years — includes a $118 million increase for the basic education funding that goes to K-12 schools, up 1.9 percent from the previous year and up 11 percent from four years ago, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

The budget also set aside $15 million more than last year for special education; $25 million more for early childhood education funding; $22 million more for early intervention; and $30 million more for career and technical education — including the PA Smart jobs training and apprenticeship program that brought Wolf to the South Side on Thursday.

Wesley Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wesley at 412-380-5676, or via Twitter @wesventeicher. Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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