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School districts try to budget despite state impasse
School districts in York County and across Pennsylvania have already began discussions about their budgets for the 2016-17 school year, even though they remain uncertain on how the not-yet-agreed-upon state budget will affect their finances this year.
Billions for schools and universities remain in limbo after Gov. Tom Wolf at the end of December used a line-item veto to reject portions of the Republican-passed budget. The governor released emergency funding to make sure schools' doors remained open while negotiations continued.
The uncertainty surrounding state funding makes it difficult for districts to plan their own budgets, Red Lion School Board President Christine Crone said during a meeting on Thursday.
"We can pick a base number and the funds we want, but it's a challenge to have those discussions because we don't know where the money will be coming from," she said. "We just don't know what we'll be getting."
Until a decision is made at the state level, the district will look at things such as trends and past spending patterns in its early budget discussions, said Tonja Wheeler, Red Lion's business manager.
Should members in the community wish to help move the budget impasse along, board member Joel Ogle suggested they make phone calls.
"Call your local representatives," he said. "Call them. Bother them."
Limping along: Of the emergency funding released, the Red Lion Area School District received approximately $12.1 million — mostly used to cover payroll, utilities and other essentials — enough to cover the first six months of the school year, Wheeler said.
Red Lion, like most districts across the state, has been relying on its tax revenue to keep afloat during the budget impasse, she said.
Should the stalemate wear on, those funds would run out in April and force the district to pull money from its fund balance, Wheeler said, which is "no different than a sort of 'rainy day' fund."
The district has enough to "limp along" until the year's end, she said, but it would entirely wipe out its savings if lawmakers don't compromise on the budget by the fiscal year's end.
"If I were looking into my crystal ball, I think once districts start defaulting on their payments and closing their doors, that's when the legislators will start to move," said Red Lion Superintendent Scott Deisley. "It's a shame that it takes crippling schools to get things happening."
Deisley said Red Lion will not be in the first wave of districts state-wide to shut down.
And while Red Lion will be able to make it to the year's end, the lack of funding has still presented it's challenges, Wheeler said.
"We know technology needs to be replaced," she said. "That's something that's really important for the teachers and the students, and it's been the hardest thing to say no to. Our teachers have been really mindful and have only asked for what they need."
A lack of funds is always going to be limiting, Deisley said.
"For now we're not buying anything new; we're limiting it to the essentials," he said. "But that's where it's really hurting us, we haven't been able to grow."
— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at email@example.com.