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Schools cut back as budget standoff continues

Amanda Darr, a 31-year-old working single mom in Langhorne, opened a letter recently that led her to believe her chronic child-care problems for her 4-year-daughter had finally been solved.

Amanda Darr, a 31-year-old working single mom in Langhorne, opened a letter recently that led her to believe her chronic child-care problems for her 4-year-daughter had finally been solved.

She thought that for a few seconds anyway.

"I got the letter of acceptance, and I was screaming on top of the world, 'I got a break!' " Darr said of the communication from the Radcliffe Learning Center in nearby Bristol. "The front page said your child has been accepted. Then reading on, I'm like, 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no!' "

The bad news on Page 2 was that the Bucks County early learning center won't start taking children in the state-subsidized Pa. Pre-K Counts program until Oct. 16 - about a month and a half later than normal - because the state budget standoff in Harrisburg has forced the center to scramble to find money for the program.

For Darr, who works for a home-care agency, the fall forecast now calls for six additional weeks of frustration as she scrambles to find babysitting for her daughter, perhaps with relatives or in more expensive, nonsubsidized child-care facilities.

The pre-K woes at Radcliffe are an early example of how the state's political gridlock is starting to affect education. Officials say the problem is only going to get worse as the failure to pass a statewide budget, which includes education aid, is about to enter its third month.

The uncertainty is already starting to wear on school district administrators, who are dipping into reserve funds, putting freezes on new hires, and starting to ponder their next moves if the gridlock continues into the fall.

Gov. Wolf and the Republican leaders who control the legislature canceled the latest round of planned talks last week and didn't set a date to resume. Wolf wants the legislature to give him an additional $400 million in education funding next year - he proposes generating it through new and increased taxes - while Republicans want the governor to consider privatizing the state liquor store system and reforming the public pension system.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) mourned what it called Red Thursday, the day that roughly $1 billion in the first large installment of basic state education aid normally would have been delivered if Wolf and state lawmakers had been able to reach a budget deal.

"Unfortunately it's a guessing game because there's no way to predict when" the budget impasse will be lifted, said Jay Himes, the executive director of the school business officials' group. "People are getting more and more worried whether they will have adequate recourse to open schools and keep them open."

'Really scraping'

Most officials say the hardest initial impacts of Pennsylvania's budget woes have been on prekindergarten programs, especially slots that the state is expecting to finance through Pre-K Counts that subsidize learning for children from working-class families.

In Bristol Borough, Radcliffe owner Christine DeLuca said that 20 of her 100 students are financed through Pre-K Counts and that while she's been able to obtain a partial line of credit, she won't be able to take those students until October.

"Some communities are not affected. They have the funds. They have the backup," said DeLuca, who has owned the learning center for 24 years. "These poor communities, they're really scraping to support these families."

"It's so frustrating," said Darr, whose daughter was cared for over the summer by a high schooler who won't be available. "I have another month and half to find out what to do with my child full time."

On Friday, advocates for expanding pre-K learning held a news conference at a newly constructed facility for educating 3- and 4-year-olds in Royersford called Play and Learn. They said it would sit empty until lawmakers take action in Harrisburg.

Erin Rinn, the community relations director for Today's Child Learning Centers, a major provider of pre-K instruction across Delaware County, said the money that normally pays its 13 teachers - roughly $98,000 a month in state funding - hasn't come for July or August. That hasn't translated into program cuts - for now.

"We're getting ready to start up the school year again in September and had to get an extended line of credit from our bank in order to keep everything going the way it should be," Rinn said.

Today's Child is also continuing its food program, which comes from a separate, $46,000-a-month federally funded line item that is administered by the state and is now on hold.

"For some of the children in the program, that's the best meal of the day," Rinn said. "They go home and are eating Cheetos and Doritos."

Mark Kehoe, the CEO of Brightside Academy child-care centers, with more than 60 facilities, said that classes the school operates under the Pre-K Counts program - for about 80 children in Philadelphia and 20 in Pittsburgh - may not open Sept. 8 without a state budget.

"Everyone would love to figure how to open," Kehoe said. "Each provider is exploring their options."

Bleak in October

School districts have more flexibility in spending, but officials said they were still feeling the stress from the state budget gridlock. PASBO said that it surveyed 171 districts across the state about the impasse, and most - 83 percent - have already or are likely to dip into reserve funds, while 40 percent either have or are weighing borrowing money to open up classes.

A few districts cited harsher measures, according to PASBO, with 29 percent saying that not filling vacant positions is either taking place or a possibility, and 60 percent face a similar dilemma with vendor payments.

Philadelphia School District officials are not panicking yet, spokesman Fernando Gallard said, though the situation does "weigh heavily on all of us."

The district will use the proceeds of temporary borrowing, slow some payments to vendors, and be cautious about spending. That gets it through September.

"But everything starts to look bleak in October. Then we really, really start to worry," Gallard said. Without a state budget by mid-October, Philadelphia would begin having trouble paying bills, including meeting payroll, he said. What's more, he added, the uncertainty over exactly how money will eventually arrive from Harrisburg is making it hard to plan new programs or hire new staff.

The line of credit that the district plans to use to aid in cash flow will cost $1 million, he said.

"We're prepared to open schools on a shoestring budget," said Jeff Sparagana, the Pottstown School District superintendent, who was at Friday's news conference on pre-K funding. He said that's a credit to tight spending practices, noting that the Montgomery County district is also enjoying its first year ever with no tax increases.

But, he added of the state funding situation, "you just don't know what's going to happen next."

"We can get through half to three-quarters of the school year with no additional funding," said David Goodin, superintendent of the more affluent Spring-Ford Area School District. "We can go until March before we run a deficit."

But Goodin said he was concerned about the short-term future of the roughly 300 Pre-K Counts slots in the district, which is in Montgomery and Chester Counties, since that program is much more dependent on direct state aid.

"They're not like us," Goodin said. "They need the funding."


Inquirer staff writer Kristen Graham contributed to this article.