Plan could net local schools $12.2M

Blair County schools could potentially receive $12.2 million through the $1 billion Passport for Learning Block Grant Program funded from liquor store sale proceeds, if the state Legislature passes Gov. Tom Corbett’s privatization plan.

In addition to the block grants – which would be distributed to schools over four years beginning in 2014-15 – Corbett proposes a $90 million increase to basic education funding in his 2013-14 budget. That would mean a combined $1.1 million increase in basic education subsidies among Blair County’s seven school districts, according to a Mirror analysis of figures provided by the state Department of Education shows.

But Corbett’s proposed education increase doesn’t make up for past cuts, educators say.

Since Corbett took office in 2011, Pennsylvania school districts have reduced teaching staff and trimmed educational and extracurricular offerings in response to state funding cuts.

And proceeds from liquor store sales may only temporarily drown school districts’ sorrows.

“I think public education has been drastically cut in the past few years,” Hollidaysburg Area Education Association President Jim Murphy said.

“My general feeling is Gov. Corbett’s tradeoff of liquor sales to fund education is a bad idea. It’s a one-time funding mechanism. We need a more sustainable approach,” Murphy said.

However, Altoona Area School District Education Association Second Vice President Jim Krug says the one-time money is beneficial.

“The challenge is putting it toward benefits you know are short term in nature,” Krug said. “There are a lot of positive things to do with that money, but it must be done anticipating that the money will run out.”

Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said districts seeking a share of the block grant would be required to submit a grant application to the department outlining how they propose to use the funds.

Districts may use it for school safety, kindergarten through third grade program enrichment, individualized learning program start-up costs, or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives.

However, the grants are only guaranteed if the Legislature approves the privatization plan.

That is a “coin toss,” said state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona.

“I believe he (Corbett) thinks that he will win votes because the proceeds are going to education. I don’t think that’s the case,” McGinnis said.

He said he would rather allocate the proceeds to decrease the state debt or fund the state’s transportation initiatives, he said.

“Education gets plenty of money,” McGinnis said.

Despite differences in where he’d spend the proceeds, McGinnis hopes Corbett’s proposal to privatize liquor stores is supported by a majority of the General Assembly.

“I am hopeful it will pass because government should not be in the liquor business,” he said. “We need to get the state out of that business and let the market, which will be more convenient, responsible and safe, run the operation. Markets are what bring about convenience and quality. I am quite confident in that.”

Murphy is not so sure.

“The idea of possibly having liquor [for sale] on every block is bad for the community,” he said, adding that sustained basic education subsidy funding should be the priority through which to fund education.

“The choice between having a family-friendly community and good schools is a false choice,” he said. “We should have both.”