TODAY'S TOPIC, an annual one for me, is how your tax dollars enter the maw of public education and to a significant extent just sit there.

That's right.

Despite cutbacks, layoffs and the "education crisis," especially in Philly, a vast majority, as in 97 percent, of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts hold interest-bearing "reserves" to be used, or not, for anything they want.

The statewide total, according to state Education Department data, now tops $4.4 billion.

I write about this counterintuitive condition every year because it strikes me as flat-out wrong.

In a nutshell, districts can amass money in three accounts, one of which is "unassigned," a/k/a sitting there.

Accounts are interchangeable in ways that allow districts to also raise local taxes to get more money.

This largely favors wealthier areas and works against poorer areas because local tax dollars tend to drive local schools.

Philly's school district, for example, has a negative "unassigned" balance of $120 million.

In the 'burbs, Colonial School District in Montco has $20 million in an "unassigned" account; Central Bucks, $17.8 million; Downingtown, $16.1 million; Upper Darby, $13.2 million.

And because charter-school funding formulas differ from regular schools, 69 of Philly's 89 charter schools hold "unassigned" dollars totaling nearly $90 million.

Some examples: Franklin Towne Charter in Northeast Philly, $5.9 million; Independence Charter at 16th and Lombard, $5.6 million; Christopher Columbus in South Philly, $5.1 million.

State Budget Secretary Randy Albright says, "This points out problems in the way we fund charter schools."

I guess.

Every year I ask education officials about reserves. Every year they say extra money is needed to counter cutbacks or teacher strikes or to plan for the future, and that reserves are shrinking due to cuts.

But every year reserves go up, largely unquestioned and unchallenged.

The total 10 years ago was $1.4 billion. It was $3 billion by 2010, the year Republican Gov. Corbett was elected.

It grew to $3.8 billion in 2012, the year after Corbett was decried for cuts to education. It grew again in 2013. It's still growing.

And every year nothing happens.

Why? Well, most districts are happy to have reserves, most lawmakers don't want their districts unhappy and many lawmakers enjoy lots of campaign contributions from education-related donors.

Meanwhile, only 16 of 500 districts show no reserves or negative balances.

The only such district in the region other than Philly's is Chester-Upland in Delco. The rest are spread across the state.

I don't suggest that school districts carry no reserves. I don't suggest that wealthy and/or well-managed districts share their funds with poorer or badly managed ones.

I suggest that the Legislature look at the amount of tax dollars sent to districts already flush with existing surpluses.

And if you think this is only a city vs. 'burbs thing: Pittsburgh has an "unassigned" balance of $89 million; Reading, $26 million; Allentown, $19 million.

I note all this now because in two weeks a 15-member state Basic Education Funding Commission created last year is required by law to offer the Legislature recommendations on a new school-funding formula.

Neither commission co-chair Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh County, nor Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montco, was available for comment yesterday.

But Albright, Democratic Gov. Wolf's budget secretary and one of Wolf's representatives on the commission, says questioning the size of reserves is "a very valid point . . . it should be part of the discussion."

Encouraging, no?

Maybe not: Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, essentially said the same thing when I asked about reserves two years ago: "It's a good question. Is there too much?"

There are reasons Pennsylvania has the least-equitable school-funding system in America, according to U.S. Education Department findings that show a 33 percent spending disparity between poor and wealthy districts.

It's hard not to think that one of those reasons is fat and growing reserve accounts, courtesy of our Legislature.

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

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