HARRISBURG, Pa. - Mechanicsburg Area School District was sitting on reserves equal to 33.4 percent of its annual operating budget in 2012-13, but convinced its teachers to agree to a pay freeze the next year anyway.
Susquehanna Township School District raised taxes in 2013-14 even though it ended the year with enough in its reserve funds to cover 27 percent of its 2012-13 operating budget.
Venango County's Valley Grove School District had enough money in reserve in 2012-13 to operate the district for a full year with little need for any additional income.
Much has been said about the roughly $1 billion cut from school funding three years ago after federal stimulus dollars dried up. But little attention has been given to the fact that many Pennsylvania school districts still managed to build their rainy day funds in the years since.
In 2011, the year Gov. Corbett took office, the state's school districts held a combined total of $3.5 billion in their committed, assigned and unassigned fund balances - their reserve funds. In 2012-13, the most recent year the state Department of Education had this data available, that financial cushion grew to more than $4 billion.
Why the increase? District officials and others offered several explanations:
Some districts said they were - and still are - setting money aside for future pension bills, or school construction projects.
It's an unintended consequence of Act 1, the 2006 law aimed at controlling school property tax increases.
Districts want a contingency in case of delayed state reimbursement or subsidy payments in the event of a late state budget passage.
Schools are keeping money available to cover unforeseen expenses and emergencies.
But a state lawmaker and a midstate superintendent say some districts are taking this idea of squirreling money away too far.
"It's one thing to set aside for next year's pension payment," said state Rep. Mike Vereb, (R., Montgomery). "But to hoard millions and then cry you're not getting enough money from the state and you have to cut kids' programs because they are not getting money from the state is total nonsense."
Vereb and Northern Lebanon School District Superintendent Don Bell suggest the recently organized commission tasked with developing a new school funding distribution formula consider making district reserves a factor in how much state aid a district receives.
"It has to be part of the conversation," said Vereb, a cochair of the Basic Education Funding Commission. "Let's face it, the fund balance comes from the same pocket of taxpayers who are being asked to pay more in taxes. . . . To have a school district with large cash reserves they have stowed away still raising taxes, it's a travesty."