School districts wary as state budget deadline looms
Last year's nearly nine-month-long state budget impasse left many school board members and administrators cautious in their budgets for the 2016-17 school year.
While some were optimistic a state budget will be finalized by Thursday's deadline, others were wary and unsure of how to plan for the possibility of another stalemate. School board members and administrators described their budgets as conservative, typically basing the anticipated amount they expect to see from the state basic education fund on the numbers from the 2015-16 school year.
Lawmakers: As the state’s fiscal year draws to a close this week, top lawmakers and the Wolf administration continue to hold budget negotiations, a key point of which is education funding.
Already there’s been compromise on Wolf’s part. He recently lowered the amount of additional education funding he previously sought, from $350 million to $250 million.
The governor had asked for $350 million in additional funding for public school instruction and operations in his 2015-16 budget but received only $200 million — still a historic increase — under the GOP-crafted spending plan that became law this spring.
“The budget we just passed includes the most money we've ever put into education in the history of the commonwealth, and it's being distributed in a fair and equitable way,” said Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, referring to the fair funding formula Wolf recently signed into law.
Although Wolf dropped $100 million from his basic education funding request for 2016-17, he is seeking $30 million more for early childhood education and $30 million for special education.
“Going from $350 million to $250 million is a great compromise on the governor’s part,” said Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s spokesman.
In a memo dated June 22, Sheridan wrote that though Wolf has compromised on his requested increase of education dollars, properly funding education is still one of the governor’s top priorities.
Phillips-Hill said there will likely be an increase in education funding this year, but exactly what that amount will be remains to be seen.
With Democrats in the minority in the House and Senate, Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, said it falls on them to speak up for values they share with Wolf, such as increased funding for education.
“Obviously we all have one vote. Not only can we cast that one vote, but we also have to advocate for the governor,” he said.
Schreiber said he, too, anticipates an increase in education funding, but the exact number still has to be hashed out in negotiations.
Schools: At the Dallastown Area school board meeting June 18, Superintendent Ronald Dyer said he was optimistic the state budget would be finalized before the June 30 deadline. He said in a later interview that the board was cautious when calculating how much the district would receive from the state, basing the number off the amount they got last year. Many school districts followed this practice.
If Dallastown schools get more than the board anticipated, which is $8.7 million, Dyer said, the addition money would go toward hiring teachers and expanding programs.
"We were conservative for the year we're just ending and even more conservative for next year," Dyer said. "But I do believe they're trying hard to bring something to the governor by the deadline. I really want to believe that."
For some board members at York Suburban School District, which estimates that it will get $1.7 million in basic education funding from the state, the uncertainty of the state budget factored into how they voted on their budget. Richard Robinson voted no on the plan because he felt taxes should be raised a bit more than the finalized 2.4 percent to ensure that revenue was coming from a more reliable source.
York Suburban did not anticipate getting any more money from the basic education fund than it did last year, using the exact same amount in the 2016-17 budget.
"The whole crisis that we faced as a school district is one that, personally, I think we might be looking at a similar situation again," Robinson said, referring to the impasse. "I'm just not confident. I'm not confident that we're going to solve this question in a timely manner."
York Suburban board president Lynne Leopold-Sharp and York City board president Margie Orr said that they didn't have "the faintest idea" of whether or not the budget would be passed on time. Orr wasn't worried though; the York City School District has been able to add money to its fund balance in the past two years and has been very careful in its spending, according to the board.
Their caution with spending and the discretion in adding new programs in the 2016-17 budget left Orr feeling confident the school district would be able to forge through, with or without additional state funding .
"I can't say that we're actually worried, because our district has been very frugal," she said. "We're hoping that the state will get their act together and the governor will be more timely, and if the district gets some money, we will be happy with that. As for now, we're doing OK."
Leopold-Sharp said that if another impasse does occur, York Suburban will turn to its "modest fund balance" of about $4.6 million, but the district also would keep chugging along to ensure that its students and employees were taken care of.
"If there is an impasse, we will certainly control our expenses and utilize our funds as long as they're available," she said. "We'll open the doors timely, we'll pay our staff and vendors, we'll make our contributions to charter school tuition and PSERS (Public School Employees' Retirement System)."
The state budget impasse still remains fresh in many school administrators' and board members' minds. With each day that passes without news from Harrisburg, districts are becoming more worried.
"Unfortunately, I wish I could be more positive and optimistic," Robinson said.
Below is a list of all York County school districts and the amount of state funding they budgeted for in 2016-17:
Central York: Not available
Dallastown Area: $8,713,239
Dover Area: $11,038,710
Eastern York: $7,152,822
Hanover: Not available
Northern York: $7,683,809
Red Lion Area: $14,216,000
South Eastern: $8,641,156
South Western: $9,636,985
Southern York County: $7,555,546
Spring Grove Area: $10,203,376
West Shore: $12,780,518
West York Area: $5,497,936
York City: $58,969,640
York Suburban: $1,746,057