'This didn't happen overnight': Schools look to Gov. Shapiro for funding reform

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Andrea Berry, like many school administrators from lower-income districts, is cautiously optimistic that Gov. Josh Shapiro's first budget will funnel more dollars to York City's long underfunded schools.

Nonetheless, she's entering this year's budget process without making any assumptions.

“This didn’t happen overnight," Berry said, "so we can’t expect it to be fixed overnight.”

York City's schools have been underfunded to the tune of $5,258 per pupil, according to data gathered by the Education Law Center. Another 2018 report, by the school funding advocacy group Equity First, showed that the district was one of 19 statewide that was underfunded by more than $10 million overall.

Dr. Andrea Berry, Superintendent of Schools, speaking at the York City School District press conference to announce its exit from financial recovery status in York on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022.

Such districts will likely benefit from last month's Commonwealth Court decision that concluded Pennsylvania's school system is so underfunded that it violates a clause in the state constitution requiring lawmakers to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”

"It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth," Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, who was elected as a Republican, wrote in the decision.

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Shapiro's first budget, to be unveiled next week, will serve as the first step toward fixing the state's education funding woes — although it remains uncertain how far the new administration in Harrisburg will go.

State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York, said she isn't sure what will be in Shapiro's budget.

"But I'm hopeful that we will see an increase in our funding and that we will be more fair and equal to all of our students across the commonwealth," she said.

While the work does not end in one budget cycle, changing that course begins now, and lawyers for the school districts told The Associated Press at least $2 billion in additional funding for education would be a good start toward the billions more they say the poorest school districts need.

Volunteer Kevin Kennedy, left, looks on as Agnel Martinez, 5, of York City, reacts to his newly made craft during the Three Kings Day celebration at William Penn Senior High School in York City, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“We think that this is an appropriate investment to start to address the scale of the problem we’re facing,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center, which helped represent the school districts along with the Public Interest Law Center and the O’Melveny & Myers law firm.

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But it’s only a start of what the winning school districts hope to see.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said they’re hoping to see an action plan from Shapiro that shows how the state will develop a system that funds schools based on what students need.

“What we don’t want is a fight over this budget cycle and then to, in July, ask what happens next,” he said.

Berry is aware of the long road ahead.

The York City schools superintendent pointed out that no reasonable person would ever demand all the money in one night — or one budget. 

“But if we start diligently working toward a solution that’s going to better meet the needs of the kids regardless of their ZIP code — to me, that's fair," she said.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Andrea Berry speaks during the William Penn Senior High School Graduation 2021 at York Expo Center in West Manchester Township, Thursday, June 10, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York City is hardly the only district to be impacted.

The Education Law Center data shows that Hanover's public schools are underfunded by $4,976 per student. Indeed, the only York County district not running at a deficit is South Eastern, along the Maryland state line.

Regionwide, other key underfunded school districts include Harrisburg, with a $5,086 per-student shortfall, and Chambersburg, with a $4,775 per-student deficit.

Although York City did not participate in the lawsuit, they will benefit from it, Berry said. She's excited for her colleagues' work to prevail but is also aware that the decision could be appealed. 

Other states with similar suits have shown legislative action is not often swift. In some cases, there's no guarantee the changes come to fruition. Lawmakers have often not approved enough funds to be entirely compliant with a court's ruling. Sometimes the cases return to court time and time again in attempts to push lawmakers to act.

The School District of the City of York in York City, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Shapiro is scheduled to unveil his first budget plan Tuesday when he speaks to a joint session of the General Assembly.

So far, he has said little about how he will respond to the court decision after saying repeatedly on the campaign trail last year that he was in favor of “fully funding” public schools.

Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, speaking at the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday, hinted that a school-funding response will be a major feature of Shapiro's budget plan, saying Shapiro will “have a lot to say” about equitable school funding.

Any plan must get through the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate. Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans — who opposed the school districts' lawsuit — have not said whether they will appeal the judge's ruling.

Lawyers for the school districts that originally filed suit in 2014 presented evidence during last year’s trial that schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, an estimate they said does not account for gaps in spending on special education, school buildings and other facilities.

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In the current fiscal year, the state is sending about $9.6 billion to school districts for school operations, instruction and special education.

“I think we’re all looking forward to hearing what [the governor] says in his budget speech, so we have a little bit better sense of what he’s been hearing and what it is that he’s thinking,” said Katrina Robson, a partner at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, which helped represent the school districts in the suit.

Eighth-grader Ziaire Finley, who aspires to be a chef, is interviewed by Hannah Penn Human Resources Specialist Jennifer Dettinger during a mock job interview at Hannah Penn K-8 School in York City, Thursday, May 23, 2019. The day is a culmination of efforts to train and guide students through the process of preparing a portfolio to market themselves for jobs, as well as coaching them through the interview process. Dawn J. Sagert photo

As someone who has to balance a district budget annually, Berry said it’s not an easy thing to do.

“Money only goes so far,” she said.

For underfunded districts like hers, Berry said, there are needs that simply cannot be met. Meanwhile, York City's population growth has put more strain on the district's finances.

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With increasing economic pressures, including inflation, the housing market and rising gas prices, Berry said it can be difficult for districts to make ends meet without increased funding. If York City was fully funded, she said, the district could address infrastructure and staffing needs.

“One thing urban districts have always been committed to do is to do our best for our kids,” she said. “So we do what we can to make things work and hope that we can pick it up in years to come.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.