EDITORIAL: Too much at stake

York Dispatch

It's hard enough for school districts to budget in a normal year.

Districts are usually expected to finalize their budgets while state budget negotiations are going on. They are required to have a balanced budget passed by June 30, which means administrations start working on the financial plans around, well, now. In order to pass a final budget at a school board meeting in June, the preliminary budget is usually up for a vote in April, May at the latest. Which means discussions begin in March.

In a normal year, school districts would look at the amount of state funding they received for the previous year, and they'd look at the amount the governor proposed for the next year. The business managers would weigh the difference and usually settle on a figure somewhere in between to start working with, knowing that the Legislature hardly ever gives the governor exactly what he wants and that education funding always goes up. They settle on a tax rate based on what they think will probably happen when the state financing is worked out and hope that they're somewhere in the ballpark.

But this is anything but a normal year.

York County school districts are working with emergency funding because the Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf have not yet settled on a budget for the current fiscal year. While the state has released emergency funding to keep the schools open during the budget impasse, districts are relying on taxpayer money to pay teachers and keep the lights and heat on.

Eventually, that money will run out, and schools will have to start making the hard decisions that the state lawmakers are apparently unwilling to make themselves.

"If I were looking into my crystal ball, I think once districts start defaulting on their payments and closing their doors, that's when the legislators will start to move," Red Lion Superintendent Scott Deisley said last week to Dispatch reporter Jessica Schladebeck. "It's a shame that it takes crippling schools to get things happening."

It's more than a shame. It's irresponsible. It goes against the state Constitution, which every one of the lawmakers has sworn an oath to uphold: "The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth."

That can't happen when schools are limping through the year while legislators continue to squabble.

On Tuesday, Wolf gave his annual budget address to the general assembly. His plan includes a 3.3 percent boost for basic education, more than 30 percent more for pre-K spending and a 4.6 percent increase in special education funds.

Wolf unveils 2016-17 budget plan

That budget assumes the increase in a bipartisan plan that fell apart in the House just before Christmas goes through. Altogether, state funding for education would receive a 10 percent boost over the two-year period.

But there are no guarantees about anything.

Meanwhile, school districts put off updating technology. They make do with limited supplies. Local groups help out with donations, as Temple Beth Israel does with its Good for Goode program.

And students maybe don't learn quite as much as they should. They can't take an extra step to satisfy their curiosity. They wait for a chance that doesn't happen.

This can't go on. We can't make plans for the future when we don't have a firm grip on the present, and we can't expect school districts to continue their vital work without knowing how much they will be able to spend on it next month, let alone next year.

As a Red Lion school board member said, it's time to start calling our legislators. Bug them, constantly, consistently. Tell them to get a budget for the current year passed, now. There's too much at stake to continue to put it off.

In this file photo Pre-K co-teacher Megan Runk, upper right, works with student Dahjmir Gaines, lower right, on an iPad during afternoon work time at Hannah Penn K-8 School in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

And then we'll be able to look at the students and make plans for their future.