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Struggle over Pa.'s school aid split

A proposed formula has lawmakers worried their local systems won't get a fair share.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Doling out education subsidies to Pennsylvania's 501 school districts is a tricky task for state government.

While all school districts, even the wealthiest, get at least nominal increases each year, an inevitable tug-of-war ensues among lawmakers over whether their local systems are getting a fair share. And these battles are typically fought one year at a time.

Looming state budget negotiations could heighten the tension this year as the legislature considers Gov. Rendell's proposal to boost basic education aid by $291 million, the largest one-year increase in more than two decades.

The Democratic governor considers the money a down payment on a six-year plan to grow basic education spending by up to $2.6 billion annually, partially filling a $4 billion-a-year spending gap identified in a study ordered by the legislature. The money would be distributed under a formula intended to fill the void between what districts currently spend and what they need to spend to improve students' academic performance.

The largest increases are targeted for school districts with relatively high property-tax rates that generate fewer local tax dollars for education. The smallest - 1.5 percent - would go to about 100 districts whose spending is at or near what the study deems to be adequate.

Sen. Joe Scarnati, the Senate's president pro tempore, said he cannot settle for such a small increase for the small, rural school districts he represents - even though he acknowledges that many other districts desperately need a bigger infusion of state tax dollars.

"This penalizes rural school districts for not raising taxes," said Scarnati (R., Jefferson). "I don't see any fairness in the formula."

The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools is pushing for the minimum increase to be bumped up to 2 percent, which would require a redistribution of $50 million to districts below that threshold, executive director Joseph Bard said.

The administration contends that some of the larger aid increases in the formula would go to rural districts, noting that 16 of them have the highest property-tax rates in the state. Forty rural systems would get increases of at least 4 percent in the 2008-09 school year, according to the state Education Department.

At the other end of the spectrum, the state's urban districts and their mayors are mounting a lobbying effort to win legislative support for a multi-year funding commitment.

Both camps say the initiative is critical to revitalizing the state's economy and reducing unemployment and crime rates.

"If you have an undereducated, illiterate, unemployed child who grows up into a person who may be potentially involved in crime, every step along the way there are additional costs to dealing with that person," Mayor Nutter said.

Longer-range planning can help lawmakers avoid getting mired in parochial funding squabbles year after year, said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. He pointed out that the legislative study found that more than 90 percent of school districts are spending less than they should.

"If we don't start looking at this bigger, global picture affecting the state, we're doomed to failure," Pawlowski said. "We're doomed to be an aging Rust Belt state that can't get its act together."