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The tone surrounding the passage of a potential state budget turned negative for school officials following a proposal that would require districts to turn to voters for their consent on any tax increase.

"It would cause the demise of public education as we know it," West York Superintendent Emilie Lonardi said of the referendum.

York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle was also concerned.

"Public education is the cornerstone of any democracy," she said. "This referendum would set districts up for failure, and therein lies the downfall of democracy. Now, that may be a bold statement, but I believe it wholeheartedly."

Lonardi said that public education has "become an easy target. The truth is, this is the one environment that has everything, not a few things, it has everything to do with the future and well-being of Pennsylvania."

Taxes: According to Lonardi, state funding accounts for only 24 percent of West York Area School District's budget. While this fairly low percentage is one of the reasons the district will be able to stay afloat amid the budget impasse should it endure, it is also the reason behind her concern for the referendum.

"Twenty-four percent, that's all they give us; the rest of it comes from local taxes," she said. "If the state were to properly fund its schools then this idea could be considered, but in our case it just won't work. They would have to actually fund our schools first."

George Ioannidis, Spring Grove Area School District's business manager, also expressed concern, considering many districts, such as West York, rely heavily on their tax base.

"If revenue isn't available from whatever source, whether it be state funding or public funding — which usually is the controlling piece — expenses are going to have be reduced pretty drastically for us to meet requirements and pass our proposed budget," he said. "We certainly do not want to see 40 children to a classroom, and I'm not suggesting that's definitely what's going to happen, but there would be consequences, generally speaking, that need to be considered."

The Campaign for Fair Education Funding, in a letter signed by a slew of local advocates, urged Gov. Tom Wolf and legislators to "abandon any discussions related to mandatory back-end referendum and the elimination of the Act 1 index and exceptions."

Ioannidis said that in his six years with Spring Grove, the district has officially only once sought out an exception to and exceeded the index by which the state allows the district to raise taxes.

He said the district "has worked to conform to those requirements, and one could argue that those have worked to control tax increases."

Funding increase: While the referendum is causing concern for most school officials, they said they're still pleased about the state moving forward in budget negotiations in any respect.

"School districts in general are eager to have a budget passed," Merkle said. "We're at the point where we must pass our own budgets, we'll deal with whatever it is they decide."

Northern York County School District Superintendent Eric Eshbach's impatience with legislatures took the form of a quick quip.

"I love the idea of having a budget, I think they should aim to have one every year," he joked, adding, on a more serious note: "We're now 120-some days in, so that's the fifth month without the budget. I'm glad to hear that the conversation is moving forward and I'm glad to hear that education funding remains a huge issue for the governor."

Eshbach emphasized that any additional funding put toward education would be "money well spent."

Wolf initially wanted $400 million in new education funding while the compromise in the potential budget is $350 million — an increase of about 6 percent, to $6.1 billion.

"The increase in the basic funding is very necessary," Merkle said. "We've suffered a decrease in basic funding for the last number of years, and it's time that we shift that tide; and once we've done that we can focus on the distribution."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.

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