EDITORIAL: School-funding Cut Outrage Felt in Harrisburg

It’s been a rough year for public schools in Delaware County. They’re always under the gun from local taxpayers to control costs. But the Great Recession – and decreased revenues to state coffers — has put even more strain on a system that’s very nearly broken.

Just this week, Chester Upland officials were in federal court after suing the state Education Department. They claim inadequate funding will result in an $11 million deficit in its budget in 2012-2013. The district has teetered on the brink of insolvency all this year as well, with staff constantly facing the prospect of payless paydays. Officials are even proposing the first property-tax increase in decades – though there is precious little property left in the district to tax.

Upper Darby School Board meetings are routinely drawing 1,000 or more spectators as that district – looking at a $4 million budget gap – is proposing cutting 64 employees and curtailing music, art, library, foreign language and phys ed classes in elementary and middle schools, while raising taxes as well. This week’s meeting, in which the preliminary $160 million spending plan was approved, set a record for length. It lasted from 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to 2 a.m. Wednesday; some 80 residents addressed the board.

It’s a system in crisis, and that’s why good news – any good news – is welcome. And education advocates across the state got some this week. Citing rising state revenues, the state Senate approved a $27.65 billion budget that blunts some of Gov. Tom Corbett’s more egregious cuts and restores funding for some education programs.

Among other things, it boosts public education spending by $100 million to $6.616 billion. Basic education funds are increased by $50 million, with much of the money routed to distressed school districts. Another funding stream for needy districts, the Pennsylvania Accountability Block Grant, is restored – although at $50 million, that’s half of its former total.

The Senate also cut proposed contributions to the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System. Corbett wanted $916 million; the Senate allocated $856 million, which is still up $250 million from last year. Funding is also restored to 2011-2012 levels for Penn State University, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and for the State System of Higher Education’s 14 colleges, which took a dramatic hit this year.

Altogether, the Senate plan calls for about 2 percent more in spending, while Corbett’s proposal asked for a reduction of about $22.6 million for spending totaling $27.14 billion.

Local officials are watching and waiting to see what the final outcome will be. “The hope here is that at least there’s a dialogue happening,” said Upper Darby School District Business Manager Ed Smith. “It is encouraging.”

The plan now goes to the state House of Representatives. Corbett has said he’s open to changes to his proposed budget but wants to make sure the state has enough money to pay its bills before increasing spending.

It’s very likely the GOP-controlled Senate charted a course in conflict with their Republican governor because they are hearing from their constituents – the folks who are bearing the burden of Harrisburg’s tight fists. They, and members of the GOP-controlled House, are closer to their neighbors who are trying to do more with less. They’re seeing the pain the cuts are causing in their hometowns.

It could come to a fiscal showdown in the Republican cloakroom at the state Capitol. Call it a lesson in the politics of austerity.

Published in Daily Times (Friday, May 11, 2012)

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