School officials seek slots provision
HARRISBURG -- If legislators pass a bill allowing slot-machine gambling in Pennsylvania, education officials want a provision added to the state constitution to ensure the profits will benefit schools only.
The point was one of many added to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association's legislative platform on Thursday. The PSBA is a Harrisburg-based education advocacy group that represents the interests of the state's 501 public school districts.
Almost 300 officials representing those districts revised the platform during a three-hour meeting yesterday in Hershey as part of the PSBA's annual conference. New points were added on special education, instruction, teacher benefits, school facilities and school funding.
Tim Allwein, the PSBA's assistant executive director for governmental and member relations, said the platform lays the framework for what PSBA lobbyists will be pushing to legislators in Harrisburg.
"It's our members telling us what they think we should be supporting," he said. "It's a barometer of issues important to school boards."
Chuck Pascal, a member of Armstrong County's Leechburg Area School Board, brought the slots issue to the floor.
Legislators are considering using slot machines at the state's racetracks as a way of generating the income necessary to allow for a property tax reduction. The House this week approved a measure that would use slots proceeds to fund school districts. The bill that would legalize the games, however, is still under debate.
In an effort to ensure that potential funding doesn't end up going to other interests, Pascal said the PSBA should support legislation and an amendment to the state constitution to keep the money in schools.
"The only way to guarantee to taxpayers that reduction is going to be real and permanent: It has to be put into the law," he said.
Not everyone agreed that the PSBA should support the issue.
"We do need more funds for education, but I think it is the wrong message to children, that education can be paid for by gambling," said Susan Madeja, a member of Butler County's Mars Area School District.
Larry Breech, a member of Columbia County's Millville School District, said he doesn't support gambling, but if the state is going to allow it, the money may as well go to the schools.
"We take money from booze and tell our children not to drink," he reasoned. "Sometimes you kind of have to go with the flow."
Allwein said much the same, adding the PSBA did not adopt Pascal's point to show support for gambling.
Pascal's was not the only point dealing with the constitution.
The PSBA also resolved to support a constitutional amendment that would require that annual state funding for basic education rise to at least 50 percent.
On average, that figure was about 35 percent this fiscal year.
But the subsidy payments, the first of which was due in August, are yet to arrive.
In Northumberland County, the lack of funding has crippled the Shikellamy School District, which may have to shut down classrooms within coming weeks.
About 3,300 students would be affected by the close, said board member Slade Shreck.
Despite the PSBA's revised lobbying platform, Shikellamy board President Preston Ross sees a bleak future for his district. One reason, he said, is statewide school policies and mandates, which are too specific to be effectively applied to their broad target.
"No one fast answer is going to solve the whole commonwealth's problem," he said.
Lucinda Nicely, vice president of the Derry Area School Board, also said she doesn't expect the revised legislative platform to make a major impact. But, she said, it's at least a start.
"We're trying to take the steps to enact certain things," she said. "This is the first of many steps."