Pa. schools join Philly in call for more state money

A group of unlikely allies descended upon Harrisburg Tuesday to lobby for additional school funding.

Pennsylvania charter school leaders, as well as local officials from Republican-controlled counties, joined Philadelphia in the call for more state aid for basic education.

“This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue,” said Ronald Williams, a GOP member of the Pottstown school board in Montgomery County. “This is an issue that has to do with the future of our children.”

Cuts and skyrocketing pensions

Throughout the last few years, Pennsylvania schools have been reeling due to state cuts, skyrocketing pension costs and the economic downturn.

The Philadelphia district, despite already cutting nursing staff and moving to close dozens of schools, is facing a $304 million budget deficit next year.

School leaders are requesting an extra $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state and upwards of $100 million in labor union concessions in order to close the gap.

Similar issues statewide

Blue Mountain School District Superintendent Robert Urzillo said Philadelphia is not alone in its budget crunch.

In recent years, Urzillo said, his district’s class sizes have increased, while the number of high-school electives has dropped.

The rural district, located in Schuylkill County, has even started charging for kids to participate in extracurricular activities.

“There’s not much more we can do,” Urzillo said.

Officials from the Parkland, Lancaster, Reading and Lehighton Area districts also made a pitch for increased state support at a news conference in Harrisburg.

Impact on charter schools

At a separate event at the capitol, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said budget cuts have trickled down to charter schools as well.

“Charter schools are already feeling the brunt of these fiscal challenges,” Nutter said. “This year, 21 charter schools applied for enrollment expansions. None of those requests were granted, meaning thousands of children remain on waiting lists.”

Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said the city’s charters will be even worse off if the state doesn’t come through with more money.

“If the budget gap’s not filled, we could be looking at a 12 percent cut,” Jones said. “There are several small, independent charters that may not be able to weather that storm and could actually close.”

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said the mayor was meeting with state lawmakers and the Corbett administration Tuesday.

On top of additional funding, Nutter is also seeking state legislation in order to raise money for the schools through city taxes on liquor and cigarettes.

Several local officials throughout Pennsylvania said they also planned to meet with legislators Tuesday.

‘Limited funds’

Will these unlikely allies build momentum for increased financial support from the state?

“There’s only so much revenue and there’s a lot of pressure for those limited funds,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Senate Republicans. “As a result, I can’t say the odds are any better today.”

Arneson said GOP Senators back the House Republican budget, which would boost basic education aid by $100 million, or 1.8 percent. Education leaders in districts throughout Pennsylvania argue that isn’t enough.

One potential way to raise money for schools is to hold off on cuts to the capital stock and franchise tax, according to the liberal-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Kate Atkins, the center’s outreach coordinator, said that option is gaining traction.

“I think it’s fair to say the conversation … is a live debate in Harrisburg right now,” she said. “One Republican lawmaker said he had never had anyone from the business community come to him and ask for the [tax] to be lowered.”

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