Preschool students Nehize Idaho, 4, left, and Kaiell Moody, 5, laugh while reading books at a York YWCA Pre-K Counts class Tuesday. Gov. Tom Corbett
Preschool students Nehize Idaho, 4, left, and Kaiell Moody, 5, laugh while reading books at a York YWCA Pre-K Counts class Tuesday. Gov. Tom Corbett proposed additional funding for similar early childhood education programs in his budget speech Tuesday. (Bill Kalina photo)

The governor's proposed budget raised optimism for some and eyebrows for others.

Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal, unveiled Tuesday, offers more budget increases across the education spectrum than previously in his tenure.

There's additional money for early childhood education, pension relief and basic education funding increases for K-12 schools, and flat funding for state universities.

None of the funding increases are overwhelming - each York County school district stands to get about $200,000 extra - but compared to previous years, it seems almost like a boon.

The York City School District, in particular, makes out well. The extra $5.

5 million tossed in by the state last summer as a way to help York City reduce its deficit was included up front for the 2013-14 budget year, said York City business manager Richard Snodgrass. If left untouched, that would go a long way to reducing York City's $9.5 million deficit, he said, and prevent layoffs.

Good news for Pre-K: Early childhood education also was a winner, as PreK Counts and Head Start would get a $6.4 million increase in combined funding. The program helps students from families who couldn't otherwise afford preschool for their child.

"My budget reaffirms that commitment," to early childhood education, Corbett said in his budget speech.

Ruby Martin, YWCA chief program officer, said any increase in funding would be most welcome after dealing with budget cuts in recent years.

There's a wait list to get into the programs, she said, and the YWCA is hoping to expand the number of seats offered.

It's a smart investment, Martin said, since a child getting a good early education now is likely a child who won't grow up to be a criminal or dropout.

The proposed $90 million bump in K-12 funding, which Corbett tabbed as the Student Focused Supplement, won't have strings attached to it, according to the Department of Education; district officials often worry new revenue comes with new mandates.

Many school districts have been preparing 2013-14 budgets based on flat funding, so additional money could ease the use of fund balances or possibly limit a tax increase, said Red Lion business manager Terry Robinson.

But it's still early, he said, and some aspects of the increased funding are far from guarantees, particularly the pension piece.

"I'm taking a wait and see attitude," Robinson said.

Spring Grove business manager George Ioannidis added that his district's $186,000 increase in basic education funding is welcome, but certainly not enough to make a major impact on its $7.2 million deficit.

Pension reform: Ioannidis said another aspect of Corbett's plan could reap savings, though. Corbett proposed pension reform that would affect all state employees, including teachers. A sharp increase in employer contributions to help catch up for years of lackluster earnings and inadequate state and local contributions has school districts facing hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in additional expenses.

"Resolving our pension crisis would be the single most important thing we do for decades to come," Corbett said.

His plan, which he said would altogether save districts $140 billion, would maintain any pension benefits current teachers already earned, but from now on would put some limits on their earnings. And any new employee would go on a defined contribution investment plan.

The district contribution rate would be limited, too, mitigating the impact of the "pension spike" that had be the hot topic of school budget talks in recent months. Each district stands to save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But don't assume pension reform is guaranteed. Pennsylvania State Education Association plans on fighting it hard, said spokesman Wythe Keever, as they believe it's "unconstitutional" to reduce contractual obligations. And the reform doesn't really fix the problem - it just puts it off for another administration down the road, Keever said.

Corbett warned that if lawmakers didn't adopt his pension plan, funding for education could be cut.

The budget also didn't address some main fiscal issues, said Southern York School District business manager Wayne McCullough.

Districts are clamoring for a change in the cyber school funding formula, he said, but Corbett's budget doesn't touch it.

And Corbett didn't propose a change to the primary mechanism of districts are funded: property taxes.

"It is disappointing that there was not any discussion related to the real issue of fixing the current ineffective funding system for public education," McCullough said.

- Reach Andrew Shaw at ashaw@yorkdispatch.com