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York County school administrators testified on fair education funding before the State House Democratic Policy Committee on Wednesday, March 7. Wochit

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A coalition fighting for equitable education funding in Pennsylvania has named York City the most underfunded school district in the state based on per-student spending, and one of the most severely underfunded overall.

Underfunded by $51.65 million in basic and special education annually and by $6,565 per student, the York City School District is one of 19 within the state's 500 school districts that is underfunded by more than $10 million.

More: House Democratic Policy Hearing on fair education funding

Lawmakers "always hit the urban schools the hardest," school board President Margie Orr said, noting the news was no surprise. 

Superintendent Eric Holmes said York City students are "just as intelligent, talented and capable as any group of Pennsylvania students," and they don't need anyone making excuses for them.

"But they do need an education system that allocates resources equitably so that every student can meet his or her potential," he added.

The data was released by Equity First, a coalition of groups supporting Citizens for Fair School Funding, a nonprofit focused on children and fair funding.

The coalition projected which schools will be overfunded and underfunded in the 2018-19 school year based on the current state funding formula and Gov. Tom Wolf's budget proposal.

“This massive underfunding impacting the poorest, most-minority students is morally wrong," said Kelly Lewis, chairman of the coalition.

A total of 138 districts will be underfunded to the tune of $1.22 billion.

York County: York County comes in fourth within the 11 most underfunded counties in the state, with $87.25 million of the more than $1 billion total.

The three most underfunded, according to the coalition, are Philadelphia, Berks and Lehigh counties.

About half of the county's 16 public school districts will be underfunded in 2018-19, Equity First estimates.

In basic education, York City leads with a $47.2 million shortfall, followed by Central York, underfunded by $9.1 million.

York City took the top spot again in special education, underfunded by $4.5 million, and Dallastown was the second most underfunded at $1.1 million.

Overall, the two most underfunded districts in basic and special education behind York City are Central York, at $9.2 million, and Dallastown, at  $7.9 million.

More: York County school administrators testify in favor of more education funding

A full list of underfunded and overfunded districts for the 2018-19 school year can be found on supportequityfirst.org/learn-more by clicking "Is my district underfunded?" and sorting by county.

Why are they underfunded? Before the current funding law adopted in 2016, the state operated under a 1992 school funding formula in which each year districts would receive the funding they got the year before plus a cost of living increase, Lewis explained.

But he said it did not account for changes in enrollment or factors such as poverty, household income and property values.

This created disparities that grew over decades.

"Some areas have gotten pretty wealthy and some have gotten pretty poor," Lewis said. "They never adjusted for that."

And whether a district added 1,000 to its enrollment or lost 1,000, it would still receive the same amount of funding, he said.

"The reality is that 55 percent of York City students live in acute poverty, 20 percent receive special education services and about a quarter are learning English as a second language," Holmes stated.

Lewis said extra costs would have to be made up from other sources, such as school property taxes — or sometimes the district would be forced to do without. 

Holmes said his district has been following a state-mandated recovery plan since the 2015-16 school year, adding that administration has not raised taxes for five years in a row.

Though the district is in financial recovery, Orr said, implementing more programs such as high school academies and a STEAM academy has meant some hard choices with limited funding — such as cutting an after-school program.

"(We're) trying to get back some things that we had to eliminate years ago because of our finances," she said.

However, York City school board member Michael Breeland said the district is not in financial trouble. 

Regardless of state funding, the district has reserves of about $16 million to cover its shortfall, he said.

Orr said enrollment has grown and will continue to do so with the eventual closing of the Helen Thackston Charter School. The district has already taken in some of those students, she confirmed.

Holmes stated the district has had a lot of enrollment changeover since the beginning of the school year, with more than 1,600 enrolling and almost 1,000 withdrawing.

More: York City district prepares to take about 500 Thackston students a year early

Catching up: In 2016, the state adopted the Basic Education Funding Commission's proposed bipartisan funding formula that incorporated factors of enrollment, poverty, household income and property values.

The coalition embraces this formula, Lewis said, calling it "very fair" and something they had been advocating in favor of for decades.

Now it's just a matter of catching up.

The "catch-up bill," proposed by state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Marlborough Township — serving parts of Berks, Bucks and Montgomery counties — would put 75 percent of yearly school funding toward underfunded districts, with the remaining 25 percent split between all 500 districts, Lewis said.

Orr agrees with the idea of the money going to underfunded schools first.

"Our schools," she said of the county's public school districts, "deserve to have the same education as private schools."

If the York City district received its allocation of funds to close the gap, Holmes said it could "significantly reduce the local property-tax rate and still have the resources necessary to transform this district and provide our children with a 21st-century education."

Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed 2018-19 budget splits the yearly funding equally and adds $100 million for basic education and $20 million for special education.

Under that projection, Lewis said, the York City district would get about $1.5 million of the extra money, but under Mensch's projection it would get about $17.2 million — a much bigger dent in the funding gap.

More: York County districts would get $3.6M boost under Wolf budget plan

Equity First estimates it would take $400 million in additional basic education funding and $80 million in additional special education funding for four consecutive years for districts to no longer be underfunded.

These are estimates, Lewis clarifies, since the exact funding formulas change each year.

To help support fair funding, the coalition also proposes a School District Consolidation Fund as an incentive for districts to merge for greater efficiency and a Cost Savings Commission to assess state spending on schools as a whole.

Note: A previous version of the story listed York City School District's reserves as $60 million. It has been corrected to show that the district has a fund balance of $16 million.

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