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Despite funding increases under Wolf, Pa. school districts still 'treading water'

The state's main subsidy for public schools has increased under Wolf, but not as much as he had hoped - and not as much as advocates say schools need.

Gov. Tom Wolf gives his budget address at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday.
Gov. Tom Wolf gives his budget address at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday.Read moreCHRIS KNIGHT / AP

In announcing a budget plan that included more money for Pennsylvania schools, Gov. Wolf this week trumpeted the growth in state education spending during his tenure.

"The first thing I did when I got to Harrisburg was to draw a line in the sand on education," Wolf told lawmakers during Tuesday's budget address, as he declared that investments in schools were paying off.

But the tide of expenses continues to wash over that line, school officials say.

"Districts are still pretty much just treading water," said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, citing increasing costs for pensions, special education, and charter-school payments.

If Wolf's plan for next year is enacted, it will increase the state's main pot of money for schools to nearly $6.1 billion, an increase of just under 10 percent since he took office in 2015.

During his administration, he has added about $465 million to that pot, not taking into account inflation. After he was elected in 2014, Wolf had proposed $400 million just for his first fiscal year in office. That put the Democrat at odds with the GOP-controlled legislature, wary of bite-back from taxpayers, forcing Wolf to scale down his ambitions.

For the 2018-19 school year, the Wolf budget would increase basic-education funding by $100 million; however, a significant chunk of that would be earmarked for the financially distressed Erie School District.

"We need a lot more than $100 million," DiRocco said. School district pension costs are expected to increase next year by $150 million. And while Wolf's budget would add $20 million to special education funding, those costs could go up by $260 million, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

But "we understand the governor's in a tough position," said DiRocco. Education advocates said they appreciate what Wolf has done to steer money to schools, which endured deep cuts under former Gov. Tom Corbett as federal stimulus money ran out.

On Tuesday, Wolf touted areas where he and lawmakers had reached agreement — including the school-funding formula enacted in 2016, which sends more money to districts with students who are poor or who aren't proficient in English, and that have lower median-household incomes.

That formula "takes politics out of school funding and makes sure that your zip code doesn't determine what kind of education you can get," Wolf said. Apart from the one adopted in 2008 that was abandoned during the recession, the state hadn't used a formula for decades and became increasingly reliant on property taxes to fund schools.

But the one adopted under Wolf didn't apply to the money the state already was committing to education. Even with the increases Wolf proposed for next year, the formula would apply only to 9 percent of the $6.1 billion in basic education subsidies.

The formula "is only as good as the dollars sent into it," said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, which along with the Public Interest Law Center is representing school districts and parents in a lawsuit challenging the state's school-funding system. Advocates would like to see more money distributed through the new formula, which would help narrow resource gaps between districts, Klehr said.

Under Wolf's plan for the added $100 million, the Erie School District would get the largest boost in its state subsidy — $15.2 million, a nearly 24 percent increase. The cash-strapped School District of Philadelphia would get an additional $14.9 million, although that only amounts to 1.4 percent of its subsidy.

"It is no secret that the school district faces a long term structural deficit with no ability to raise revenues on our own," said Kevin Geary, the Philadelphia district's chief of external relations. "Any increase in education funding under the new basic ed formula is a positive step towards a statewide fair-funding system."

In Delaware County, the William Penn School District would get a $480,000, or 2.1 percent increase in its subsidy. The added money is "a plus for us," though "it still won't make our life easy. I'll put it that way," said Jeff Cuff, the district's business administrator. The William Penn district, which is among the plaintiffs suing the state over funding, has received similar increases in recent years, Cuff said.

But as is the case with other districts, Cuff said, William Penn's costs have outpaced those increases. Its payments to charter schools, for instance, have grown $750,000 to $1 million a year, while health care and salary costs are also growing, Cuff said.

Even with the state increase, he said, "It's still going to put us in a precarious situation."