York County school administrators testify in favor of more education funding

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

Two York County school district administrators told members of the House Democratic Policy Committee that while state education funding is headed in the right direction, more help is needed to achieve long-term goals.

York Suburban acting superintendent Larry Redding gives his statement to the House Democratic Policy Committee during a hearing on Fair Education Funding at the York City School District Administration building, Wednesday, March 7, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello

York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes and York Suburban acting Superintendent Larry Redding testified before policy committee Chairman Rep. Mike Sturla, Rep. Carol Hill-Evans and others at the York City School District administration building Wednesday, March 7.

In his testimony, Holmes pointed out strides made by the district with increases in the state basic education subsidy over the past three years, including the district's academic growth in English language arts and math in grades 4 through 8 and in grade 11.

More:York City schools see internal gains in English, math

The achievements, he said, have been made despite a challenging environment for students, including the district's 55 percent acute poverty rate — the highest of any district in the commonwealth.

Districts are set to receive another boost in funding if Gov. Tom Wolf gets his way. Under the budget plan he unveiled last month, York County school districts would see a $3.6 million increase in basic education funding and nearly $800,000 more in special education funding.

The Legislature will ultimately decide the state's budget and send it to Wolf for approval.

The York Suburban School District stands to get the largest relative basic education funding increases among York County school districts, according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget unveiled on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2017.

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

However, Holmes said the education funding increases should continue.

He blamed a "draconian budget cut" enacted by former Gov. Tom Corbett for York City School District being placed in moderate financial recovery in December 2012.

In order to retain good teachers who might flock to suburban districts, the district needs to remain competitive in compensation, Holmes said.

"While we have made meaningful progress during the last four years, we still have much to accomplish," he added.

Sturla commended Holmes and the district for the progress made and said he could only imagine what the district could do if it was "actually funded fairly."

As the local hearing was happening Wednesday, plaintiffs were testifying in Commonwealth Court in an ongoing lawsuit against Wolf, Education Department officials and top state legislators over education funding.

The suit alleges the state has failed in its constitutional duty to provide students an adequate education and seeks increased funding to public schools, according to The Associated Press.

For his part, Redding — who is leading York Suburban in an interim role while the district finds a new permanent superintendent — admitted he came before the committee with less knowledge about the district he leads, but still stated the new school funding formula known as Act 35 signed by Wolf in 2016 has had a positive impact on his district.

Act 35 enacted a new basic education funding formula that took into account the wealth and tax-collecting abilities of a school district, as well as student-based factors such as the number of students who are English-language-learners or enrolled in charter schools.

Before the new funding formula, Suburban's basic education funding was $1.9 million, and it is now proposed to be nearly $2.5 million, according to Redding.

He also referenced issues he enountered while leading Gettysburg Area schools, including district pension responsibilities. This year, school districts are required to budget 33.43 percent of their payroll costs just on the state pension known as PSERS for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

More:Early York Suburban budget sees $2.4M budget gap

"Local school board directors took all the heat for raising school taxes and property taxes, but it wasn't an issue that was created or could be solved at the local school board level," he said.

In May 2001, state lawmakers approved a 50 percent pension increase for themselves, allowing some career politicians to retire at almost full pay. At the same time, the Legislature added 25 percent pension increases for teachers and state workers.

Sturla said the state's pension crisis is far from over. He estimates rates won't be lowered for the next quarter century and suggested a bill signed into law last year by Wolf didn't really bring the pension reform districts wanted.

The law makes way for reduced retirement benefits for teachers hired after July 1, 2019, and establishes an investment account system similar to a 401(k), according to The Associated Press.

However, most savings will come decades down the road and will do little to address the state's pension debt, which stood at $43 billion in June 2016, according to a PSERS budgetary report.

At the end of his remarks, Redding requested committee members consider increasing funding to the state's Office for Safe Schools, which provides grants for increased safety at schools, including metal detectors, equipment and funding for school resource officers.

Redding's remarks come shortly after threats plagued two-thirds of York County school districts in the weeks after 17 teachers and students were killed at a public high school in Parkland, Florida.