Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

School officials slam Pa. budget stalemate

Standing alongside school officials from across Delaware County on Tuesday, William Penn school board member Rafi Cave implored his audience to imagine planning days without any concept of a budget.

Standing alongside school officials from across Delaware County on Tuesday, William Penn school board member Rafi Cave implored his audience to imagine planning days without any concept of a budget.

"Think of your household, and having to pay bills before you even know how much your paycheck is going to be," Cave said. "Any day past that can become an emergency."

Cave said his analogy is the reality school officials across the county have been forced to face: Classes are nearly starting. A cold war over the state budget in Harrisburg remains. And without one, school officials have no sense of how much money they will receive from the state.

It's been nearly 50 days since a state budget was due, yet negotiations between Pennsylvania's lawmakers have continued to crawl. Gov. Wolf and the GOP leaders who control the legislature have talks scheduled Wednesday, but there have been no signs a deal is close.

The officials gathered Tuesday at a Lansdowne elementary school to warn that time is running out. In many of Pennsylvania's 500 public school districts, teachers have already returned to their classrooms. In the next few weeks, so will students.

"There are districts that have some wiggle room," Cave said at the news conference at Ardmore Avenue Elementary School, organized by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an education advocacy group. "Some don't."

Representatives from Chichester, Haverford Township, Interboro, Upper Darby, and William Penn schools said their districts are among those that don't have that leeway. And very soon, they said, tough decisions will have to be made about how to navigate the year without the funding they expected.

Upper Darby - among the most diverse districts in the state - is expecting a shortfall of nearly $200,000 if a budget is not passed in the next few weeks. That forces the district into two options, Superintendent Richard Dunlap said: Dipping into a reserve fund or cutting programs.

For the William Penn district, the stalemate could be even more dire, said School Board President Jennifer Hoff. Already, class sizes for some grades are expected to exceed 30 students. And decisions about whether teachers could be added to classrooms have been frozen.

"We really don't know what we're working with," Hoff said.

She noted that the district school board had to approve a budget by June 30. "It's the law," she said. "But the legislators can go on and on and on, and not do their jobs."

Across the state, other school district leaders have joined the effort in calling upon the governor and legislators to enact a budget.

Some school districts have begun taking preemptive - even punitive - action. On Monday, Bethlehem Area School District officials voted to withhold 30 percent of the money owed in tuition to seven area charter schools until a budget is passed. In their decision, district officials chose the 30 percent figure because that is approximately what the state gives in funding - that has yet to be received.

Wolf's $29.9 billion budget proposal largely hinges on creating a fair-funding formula for education. To do so, he has proposed a 5 percent tax on extracted natural gas, which would raise about $1 billion for schools. He also wants higher income and sales taxes, and to end the state's reliance on property taxes to fund schools.

"I've been compromising and reaching out, trying to move, and I've gotten nothing from the other side," Wolf said during an interview on a Pittsburgh radio station Tuesday. "So it's sort of disingenuous for anybody on that side to say I'm not moving enough. ... I'm trying to move, and I'm not seeing anything on the other side except for that kind of posturing."

Republicans have countered Wolf's budget with their own, criticizing his as excessive and as an attack on the shale gas industry. Instead, GOP lawmakers have prioritized fixing rising pension costs and privatizing the state liquor business.

"This is frustrating as a school board member, but even more so because I'm a parent," said Cave, the William Penn board member. "My first grader is not going to have another shot at first grade. I can't tell her to come back once we can provide stronger resources."

"We've taxed all we can tax, we've cut all we can cut," he said. "We kept our end of the bargain."

Now, Cave said, legislators must do the same.



Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.