York County school officials relieved impasse will end

Jessica Schladebeck

Pennsylvania school officials were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief when Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday announced the end to the historic state budget impasse.

After nine months without a state budget, Wolf said during a news conference that while he won't be signing the Republicans' $6.6 billion spending package, he won't be vetoing it either. That means it will become law on Sunday, completing a $30 billion budget.

Children wait to board a bus during dismissal at Locust Grove Elementary School in Red Lion, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The budget delivers a $200 million boost to public schools, half of what Wolf originally proposed.

Upon hearing the news, York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle replied with an "Amen."

Red Lion Superintendent Scott Deisley echoed the sentiment, saying, "It's about time."

Building Assistant Linda Grove, right, smiles as Brian Derocher, left, picks up his daughter Natalie Derocher, 7, center front, while Principal Norina Bentzel holds the door during dismissal at Locust Grove Elementary School in Red Lion, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A challenge: The lack of a state budget made management at York Suburban an issue, Merkle said, noting the school board was expected to plan a district budget without knowing how much the state would contribute. Districts are required to turn in their own budgets by June 30, Merkle said, and thanks to the end of the impasse, school officials will be able to plan for the future more effectively.

"Now we have a better idea of how to close out this year so we can move forward," she said. "Fortunately, this has not affected our students. We’ll be through the year without it having a direct impact on students."

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In the Red Lion schools, Deisley said the impacts of the impasse were becoming more visible as time wore on — particularly in the district's maintenance projects and technology upgrades.

Deisley estimated $1 million worth of capital improvements have not been done as a result of the impasse. He also said computers are not only running slow, but some will no longer even turn on. Before Wolf's announcement on Wednesday, Red Lion was in an absolute spending freeze — aside from essentials such as payroll and debt payments — leaving the district unable to replace any out-of-date technology.

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Legislators "were playing a game here, and kids were put in the middle of it," he said. "That’s just not acceptable."

Moving forward: While both superintendents expressed relief, several budget-related concerns lingered.

"We're all thankful the budget passed, but by no means should we rest easy," Merkle said. "Folks need to know there is still a shortfall in education funding, and we need to continue working toward that additional funding for our students."

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And additional funding is needed, she said, citing York Suburban's consistent growth as a primary reason. This year, there were an additional 100 students attending class at York Suburban schools, Merkle said. The district however, has cut more than 20 staff positions over the past few years.

"We need to know what kind of funding we can count on so we can start looking at bringing those positions back," she said.

Deisley expressed concern over the upcoming budget, due only a few short months from now.

"They have a lot of work to do to get next year’s budget done, but we can’t afford to have this happen ever again," he said of the impasse. "It's a shame it took all of this time. The upcoming budget cannot even be one day late."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.