Whether Pa.’s schools get a big boost in funding depends on whom you ask

Superintendents may get whiplash from trying to keep up with what Harrisburg wants them to do with proposed state funding. A partisan battle is heating up over state education dollars that school districts don’t have–and may not even see.

Earlier this month, Governor Tom Wolf unveiled his preliminary budget that included an additional $400 million for basic education and $100 million for special education funding.

Those extra monies seem to have given Pennsylvania’s superintendents a new pen pal: the state capitol.

After the governor introduced his historic investment in education, Republican senators sent a letter to superintendents warning them not to rely on the projected state dollars and to take a “conservative approach” to their budgets.

This week, Acting Education Secretary Pedro Rivera sent a letter to superintendents that reinforces the idea schools will see increased state funding this year.

“In recent memory, no Legislature has ever reduced a Governor’s Basic Education Funding proposal, and we look forward to working with the General Assembly to enact the Governor’s plan,” Rivera’s letter states.

It mandates the Commonwealth’s 500 school districts send spending plans on how they would use the additional money and how they would measure results by May 15.

School ImpactOne point of the letter is to ensure the extra funds are spent on students in the classroom–something local schools are more than happy to do.

Joseph Bruni, superintendent of William Penn School District, says it’s positive because his students in Delaware County have a great need for additional programs.

“We just aren’t able to provide the opportunities that wealthier school districts can. It’s truly an opportunity gap that exists in school districts like mine,” he said. “So any way that we can increase opportunities for students to learn, that’s what we’re focused on.”

William Penn’s additional $2 million would be used for tutoring and after school programs and restoring staffing cuts.

Bruni, whose district has Title I schools, says they’ve always had to identify how they plan to spend state and federal dollars and show evidence of the results.

Superintendents agree the letter is premature but is not that different than how they already plan, as their final budgets are due in June before the Legislature has allocated their funds.

Central Bucks School District Superintendent David Weitzel appreciates the tone coming from the governor’s office. He hopes that translates into the additional $780,000 materializing but is also worried about the accountability strings attached since the district already has high performance.

“As far as getting results, that will be a bit of struggle in terms of the degree to which we’re being asked to improve,” he said. “Because most of the benchmarks, fortunately, in our district we do very well with.”

Like other administrators, Hatboro-Horsham School District Superintendent Curtis Griffin will prepare a budget that does not include the extra monies. He says his district will not count on the additional $237,000 but would use it for extended-day kindergarten and to afford smaller class sizes. 

He says submitting a spending plan is routine, but the timing is new.

“My very, very initial reaction to the letter was this is interesting,” he says. “No governor before, that I recall, asked us to describe what we’re going to do with the money before the money exists.”

GOP ResponseThat’s exactly what has state Republicans upset.

Superintendents were copied on a letter GOP house leadership sent to Gov. Wolf calling on him to rescind the mandate for spending plans–because the funding has yet to be appropriated.

“Requiring school districts to develop a plan to implement dollars that have not even been appropriated is just plain wasteful, not to mention lacking legal authority,” states the letter sent by Speaker of the House Mike Turzai and House Majority Leader Dave Reed.

The governor’s office says the mandate due in May will stand.

“I think they’re all singing to the choir,” said Superintendent Bruni who hadn’t yet seen the letter. “We who work in Pennsylvania are very aware of the politics in the budgetary process. We’re aware of who’s supporting public schools, who isn’t. We’re aware of taxpayer concerns. We sort of live with this everyday.”

GOP leaders in the legislature say it’s premature to demand those plans for money that might not even be in the final state budget and accuse Wolf’s office of “overreaching its executive power” in a news release.

“This latest political stunt by the Wolf Administration completely disregards the need for the legislative process,” said Sen. Joe Scarnati in the release.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education says their letter was not in response to the one Republicans sent suggesting schools be conservative in their budget planning. The department sees this as just one step of the schools’ budget process that begins in January.

“Secretary Rivera sent this because, as a superintendent, he knows the burden placed on districts from last-minute state mandates. This was simply his way of giving them time to plan,” said Jessica Hickernell, PDE information specialist, said in an email. “School districts have already begun developing next year’s budget. In the course of that development they meet a series of deadlines to have their plans reviewed.”

School districts say they’ll do what is asked of them.

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