Gov. Wolf pays visit to York City elementary

Greg Gross

While visiting an elementary school in the financially struggling York City School District Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf reiterated his stance that Harrisburg must increase funding to Pennsylvania schools.

Wolf made the remarks while addressing media and community and school leaders following a tour of Alexander Goode K-8 school.

"We need to have broadly accessible, relevant education that's available to every one of our citizens," Wolf said. "If we don't do that, we're really going to be in bad shape."

As part of the fiscal year 2016-17 budget he unveiled last week, basic education would get a $200 million, or 3.3 percent, boost, special education would see a $50 million, or 4.6 percent, increase, and pre-kindergarten programs would get a $60 million, or 30.5 percent, increase.

York City schools would see a $3.5 million increase in basic education funding as part of the proposal, according to the state Department of Education.

"Goode News Crew" member Aaliyah Ushry, left, backpedals as she records Governor Tom Wolf's visit to Goode K-8 with co-member Ni'lee Mariche, both sixth-graders, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Wolf, left center, talks with York City School Superintenent Dr. Eric Holmes while touring the school. Bill Kalina photo

State funding: Wolf has proposed increasing education funding in each of the budget packages he's released since taking office last year.

Wolf's spending package includes $2.2 billion in new spending, for a total of $33.3 billion. To help pay for it, the governor is proposing to retroactively increase the personal income tax by 11 percent to the start of 2016 and slightly expand sales tax. The budget would also fill a $2 billion structural deficit.

Governor Tom Wolf greets Goode K-8 second-graders during his visit to the school as part of his "Schools that Teach" tour Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. Bill Kalina photo

Income tax: Even taking the personal income tax rate from 3.07 percent to 3.4 percent, Pennsylvania still would have the third-lowest tax among states that levy a personal income tax, he said.

"If you're making $50,000 a year, it's about $3 a week. That's what this is going to cost you," Wolf said.

But Republicans in the House have long opposed a tax hike, saying lawmakers must first look for ways to cut spending.

"Gov. Tom Wolf is holding yet another taxpayer-funded political tour of commonwealth to push his fantasy budget that would leave Pennsylvanians worse off," Paul Engelkemier, spokesman for the Pennsylvania GOP, said in an email. "At a time when our schools and social services are hurting from Tom Wolf’s vetoes, it’s time for the governor to stop spending his time attacking Republicans and start actually leading our commonwealth.”

Lawmakers and the governor must first hash out the details of the current year's budget, which Wolf partially vetoed in December, before they can work on next year's budget.

"But there's a bright light at the end of the tunnel," York City schools Superintendent Eric Holmes said.

Recovery: Wolf also acknowledged the plight of the city school system, which is working through a state-mandated recovery plan aimed at increasing test scores and improving the district's financial situation as he addressed media.

Efforts are paying off, but more resources, mainly in the form of state dollars, are needed, he said.

During his tour of the school, Wolf stopped in the cafeteria where students waiting to be served lunch had their noses in books.

Students are encouraged to bring books with them and to read as they kill time, said district spokeswoman Erin James.

"It's about creating a culture of literacy," she said. "Here it's very much a fabric of the school."

Goode News: Amid the half dozen or so journalists from local media outlets were a group of students using smartphones and a tablet to document Wolf's visit.

The four students were part of the student-operated news program The Goode News, which records news around the school. Usually they cover things like science projects. But Thursday there was a much larger story to chase — Wolf's visit.

"It's pretty exciting. It's a pretty big deal," said Ni'lee Mariche, a 12-year-old sixth-grader.

The crew gathers and produces a six- to 10-minute news segment that airs bi-weekly, Ni'lee said.

The group of student journalists joined their professional counterparts, following Wolf from classroom to classroom and sitting through a news conference.

Aaliyah Ushery, 12, a sixth-grade student who had a homemade press pass slung around her neck, got something that most journalists consider a coveted opportunity — a one-on-one interview with the state's highest elected official.

"It felt nice," she said of scoring the interview, adding she also she took what Wolf said about school to heart. "This is where your life starts."

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