State budget could be better, say York County educators

FILE- In this Jan. 15, 2019, file photo an America flag flies at the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. In Pennsylvania, good fiscal times may not necessarily mean good fiscal condition. The rage in the state Capitol right now is the surplus that state government rolled up in the almost-ended fiscal year, helped by unexpectedly strong corporate and sales tax collections. That news alone is fueling requests from a legion of lobbyists with pet projects, but the momentary surplus has not necessarily changed views from the outside that Pennsylvania is a state with tall fiscal challenges. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

More state funding for higher education and career and technical schools means less in the pot for basic education, but Democrats say there was enough cash for everyone to get a bigger boost.

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $200 million increase in basic education funding for 2019-20 in February, but the proposed package passed by lawmakers Friday included $160 million, a 2.6% increase over the prior year.

Overall, the education budget includes a total increase of $432 million — 3.5% more than last year — as part of an omnibus $34 billion state budget bill.

"We're disappointed," said Todd Davies, superintendent of the West York Area School District, who also said the funding reduction from Wolf's proposal will kick the burden down to the local taxpayers.

The state mandates are still there, Davies said, and without resources, it's difficult to offset growing budgetary needs such as safety and security improvements associated with Act 44. The district was among others that received no money from the state's competitive grant.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said his priorities differed slightly from the governor's in that he felt community colleges, vocational and technical schools and higher education should receive a greater percentage of funding than they did previously.

It's "probably the best budget I’ve voted on in 16 years," Saylor said.

Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, of the 95th House District, left, reacts as Rep. Stan Saylor, of the 94th House District speaks during the Legislative Panel Discussion on the State Budget as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The goal is to lessen the burden of debt on graduating students by keeping tuition down and reward the success of schools that are adding to the workforce, Saylor said.

"We have the baby boomers retiring," he said, so bolstering the workforce is important.

The budget, which Wolf signed Friday, included increases of $10 million for career and tech education schools, $4 million each for two big trade schools, 2% each for a number of state-owned universities and community colleges and more than $46 million for a state financial aid service.

More:Report: Pa. districts need more state funding for technical schools

Bill Patton, press secretary for the state House Democratic Caucus, said many Democrats were pleased with the increases in education funding this year — especially early childhood and special education.

Nonpartisan coalition PA Schools Work stated in a news release that the special education increase was the largest to date — 4.4% more than last year — but the state's funding for public schools is still one of the lowest in the country.

"Years of underinvestment by the state has left schools $3 billion short in basic education and more than $1 billion short in special education," the coalition stated.

More:Coalition: York City district is Pa.'s most underfunded per student

Patton reinforced the need to recoup those funds — which do not go through the fair funding formula signed in 2016. While each year's increase is put through the formula, he said, the total funding awarded to each district is not.

Close to 90% of each year's education funding was decided with old data, and the best way to reduce that inequity is to add more new money, he said.

"I don’t quite ever understand why they aren’t willing to give us more money," said Margie Orr, York City school board president, upon hearing about the reduction from Wolf's original basic education proposal.

But she is confident the district will manage, saying officials will "work with what we have."

Rachael Curry, a member of the Red Lion Education Association, agreed, saying her district has always done its best with what it's been given and that she's seen great improvement within the last two years on classroom technology.

"I'm just happy to see that the amount of money is increasing" and that it's significant, which shows education is a priority, she said.

As a math teacher in Red Lion Area School District for 14 years, Curry said, she'd always like to see more funding, but she recognizes the need to compromise when planning a budget for the whole state.

The $432 million education budget boosts special education funding by $50 million and Pre-K Counts by $25 million and includes $25 million more for education tax credits.

Saylor said there is additional education funding in other sections of the budget, such as funding for veterans' education.

More:'Mindful fathering,' more curriculum added with YWCA pre-K funding

More:VIDEO: YWCA York expands Pre-K Counts program

But Patton said the state, which has more than enough collected revenue to have increased basic education funding, instead chose to put that extra revenue into the rainy day fund, which is a different approach to budgeting than Democrats would have chosen.

"We have no problem with increasing that line (for higher education) as well, but we don’t think that one level of education needs to be pitted against another," he said.

The state's $300 million budget surplus is going into the fund, which is used during an economic downturn to avoid raising taxes. It can be allocated to any agency that needs it, including education, Saylor said.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, was pleased with the addition to the rainy day fund, and she said in a news release that she supported the budget, "ensuring we live within means, plan for the future and do not hike taxes on York Countians."

"We’re going to do what we can with the funds we have," Davies, the West York Area superintendent, said. "If we can do a third year with no tax increase, we’re going to try to do it, but the state’s not making it very easy for us."

A couple of advocacy groups, as well as Patton, expressed disappointment that Social Security reimbursements were lumped in with basic education funding — which could be confusing for people who might think schools received much more than $160 million.

The reason for the switch was to mirror other states, as Pennsylvania is the only one to separate its reimbursements, Saylor said.

Patton said that although the minority caucus would have liked to have seen more funding, a number of Democrats did vote for this budget in the interest of moving forward, and the increases in funding certainly helped with that decision.