Across region, mixed results for schools in state budget deals

 (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

There’s been plenty of drama in state capitols this year as lawmakers face tight budgets and the specter of elections looming next year. As always, one of the main topics of conversation was public education.

Now that the financial dust has mostly settled, we take a look at how school budgets fared around the region.

DELAWARE

With the First State facing a $400 million budget hole, the question wasn’t whether schools would lose state money, but rather how much.

Governor John Carney originally proposed a $37 million hit that would have offered school districts something of a logistical lifeline. In Delaware, local districts cannot raise local tax rates even an iota without going to referendum. A proposal on the table would have amended that practice by allowing school districts to adjust their tax rates slightly, making it easier for some to cushion the blow dealt by state cuts.

The legislature did not grant that authority, but they did offer some financial relief. Rather than the $37 million cut first proffered, lawmakers ended up slashing $26 million.

“That reduction reflects about two, two point five percent of overall operating funds for school districts within the state,” said David Blowman, Delaware’s associate secretary of education for finance and operations. “That’s a much better outcome than districts were facing a couple of days ago.”

In Delaware, budget negotiations rarely drag more than a few hours past the June 30th deadline. This year, however, lawmakers deliberated until July 3rd, indicating just how difficult this round of talks were.

PENNSYLVANIA

Any talk of Pennsylvania’s education budget has to begin here: The Commonwealth has no completed budget at the moment.

State lawmakers did craft and pass a spending plan, but the revenue side of the equation is a big question mark. Over the next week, we’ll know more about what exactly the state will spend and how exactly it will pay for those expenses.

All those caveats stated, the spending plan included some good news for education advocates. State lawmakers add $100 million in basic education funding, $25 million in special education funding, and another $25 million for pre-K expansion.

Governor Tom Wolf had originally called for a $75 million pre-K investment, while eliminating $50 million in school transportation costs. The legislature instead kept transportation funding flat and lopped $50 million off the pre-K ask.

All in all, John Callahan, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, is pretty happy with the legislature’s spending plan, given that the Commonwealth faces a $2 billion revenue shortfall.

“We’re going to celebrate what we’ve got,” Callahan said.

This spending plan figures to help districts tread water as mandated costs such as pension and charter bills rise. But it does little to change the macroeconomic difficulties Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts face.

“This amount of money was the bare minimum to keep public school budgets running,” Callahan said.

NEW JERSEY

Most New Jersey school districts will be happy with the $100 million increase to basic education funding lawmakers approved after a brief government shutdown.

We say most districts because the Garden State is also re-jiggering how it distributes education funds, moving another $31 million from districts lawmakers consider over-funded to districts deemed under-funded.

The discrepancy emerged because the state hasn’t fully funded a weighted formula that determines how much each district is supposed to receive. Because of that, some districts are receiving more than the formula suggests they should, and some receive less.

The $31 million moves the state toward correcting that imbalance, although it’s a small step.

“But it is the first time, at least in [Governor Chris] Christie’s term where they’re starting to follow the funding formula that was enacted in the first place,” said John Mooney CEO and education writer for NJ Spotlight.

In addition to the $100 million increase, New Jersey is also investing $25 million to expand its pre-K program and $25 million to cover special education costs. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, sees those investments as critical tone-setters with Christie about to leave office.

“It gives us momentum going into a new administration,” he said.

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