School administrators worry about education funding

Alyssa Pressler
  • Four local administrators met to discuss the future of education funding with the public.
  • Worries include increased special-education costs and student poverty coupled with uncertain state funding.
  • Administrators are hoping for an on-time and fair education budget come June 30.

With a probable state budget deficit, increased employee retirement costs and more needy students in local school districts, administrators are worried about their 2017-18 school year budgets.

Four local administrators held a news conference at the York City School District administration building Wednesday to discuss the issues and to make a public plea for a fair and on-time budget from the state. They're hoping to see increased funding and a permanent fair-funding formula.

Superintendent Shelly Merkle from York Suburban School District, Superintendent Emilie Lonardi from West York School District, Superintendent Scott Deisley from Red Lion Area School District and Superintendent Eric Holmes from York City School District spoke at the conference, led by Michael Thew, a "circuit rider," or traveling spokesman, for the Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

Uncertainty: Planning for the 2017-18 school year budget has already begun, even though schools don't need to have their budgets finalized until June 30 — the same deadline for the state budget, though lawmakers have rarely met the deadline in recent years. As administrators plan, they face enormous uncertainty about what they can expect through state funding.

School budgets 101

According to a news release distributed at the gathering, the state budget is facing a large deficit, state budget negotiations haven't begun and legislation has been introduced in Harrisburg to do away with property taxes, a major source of local income for public school districts.

Drive to kill school property tax headed back to Legislature

At the same time, pension costs, health care costs, special-education costs and the tuition public schools must pay for students in their districts attending charter schools have increased in the past few years and continue to do so.

These are expensive issues to deal with, and administrators such as those at the conference worry about where the money will come from. The pleas from the superintendents were similar: The state needs to pass a fair budget, and on time, to ensure the success of the commonwealth's students.

"I know there is limited resources, but education needs to be a priority," Merkle said.

Balancing budgets: Superintendents recognize that a huge portion of their budget comes from local taxpayers. Deisley said 82 percent of Red Lion's real estate taxes came from residential property taxes. For the average property owner in the district, just under 5 percent of their income goes toward real estate taxes.

"We're committed to not raising those taxes, because our local taxpayers can't handle more," Deisley said. The district lowered tax rates last year during budget negotiations by 0.49 percent.

Red Lion cuts property taxes in new school budget

Not all local districts have been so lucky. While the York City School District has managed not to raise taxes for four years, city residents still have the highest tax rates in the county. York Suburban raised taxes last year and is discussing the possibility of raising taxes up to 2.5 percent this year, the highest it can raise taxes in the district before hitting the cap set by the state.

York Suburban seeks solutions for $2 million budget gap

Lonardi said the West York School District has had trouble for years creating a balanced budget, and she pointed to a lack of predictable state funding as an issue. Though the new fair-funding formula, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf last June, helped the district some, it was too little, too late, she said.

Lonardi said West York has a "bare bones" school budget and has cut a number of initiatives and programs to create a balanced plan. Fifty percent of the district's students qualify for free lunches, and the district has seen an increase in the number of students who can't speak English but also can't read or write in their native language.

The next step, Lonardi said, is doing what the York City School District had to do years ago: eliminate the big programs such as art classes, sports and more.

"When our children are getting good education, the whole state improves," Lonardi said during her presentation.

The administrators at the conference said they understand the burden school taxes place on the community and believe the state should do more to help. Public school districts cannot provide quality education if they need to continuously cut important programs, but they cannot continue to place those finances on the taxpayers, either, the superintendents said.

Question for districts: To tax ... or tax higher

Hope for the future: In planning for their upcoming budgets, school districts are nervous and working blind when it comes to what they may receive in state funding, the district officials said. Holmes said that is the main issue when it comes to planning for the upcoming school year.

If the district overestimates the funding it will get from the state, it can run into serious issues. If it underestimates, it might not expand or enact programs for students that can help their education.

"Districts like us, with high poverty rates, rely more on the state funding than others in the county," Holmes said. "That has a major impact on us."

While the administrators said they're hopeful there will be an increase in education funding this year, they are more realistic with their goals for the upcoming budget season. The superintendents said they are just hoping for the budget to be on time and for it to be consistent in the future so the coming years don't repeat the same anxiety.

"The most important piece is to have the state budget by June 30," Merkle said. "Whether it's good or bad, at least we'll know."

These are challenges local districts have been facing for several years and show how resourceful and creative districts can be when it comes to balancing budgets, Merkle said.

"This also speaks to the excellent job public schools are doing," she said. "We're doing more with less."