State budget shows increase in funding for education

School boards can breathe a bit easier now that they are certain that the finalized state budget includes some increases in school funding for the upcoming year. But discontent with state funding for education still runs deep with the state’s teacher association.

In the weeks leading up to a June 30 deadline, area school boards were required to approve budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, even though the amount they were to receive from the state remained unclear.

The state budget that set that funding wasn’t passed by the Legislature until June 30 or signed by Gov. Tom Corbett until July 10.

To be safe, districts like Hollidaysburg Area planned budgets with no increase in state funding.

Now school districts are becoming aware that funding aimed at kindergarten to third-grade education, the Ready to Learn Block Grant, represents overall funding increases from last year.

Hollidaysburg Area is going to receive approximately $168,000 more this year than what it received last year.

Board member Aaron Ritchey asked during a meeting on Wednesday: “How does this affect our bottom line?”

Business administrator Rob Roberts said: “We are getting an additional $168,000 going toward our $293,000 deficit.”

A sample of 15 districts in Blair, Cambria, Bedford and Huntingdon counties shows the schools are receiving a combined $1.9 million increase in Ready to Learn Block Grant funds. Those districts are also seeing a collective $261,624 more than last year for special education.

Those increases were approved by the Legislature as recommended by Gov. Tom Corbett, but it’s not gaining Corbett fanfare among his toughest critics in the state’s teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

“He’s not funding schools anywhere near to being appropriate,” PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said. “He had the opportunity to pass a budget with revenue coming from Marcellus Shale (taxation) and closing the Delaware loophole (allowing corporations to avoid paying state corporate income taxes).”

Despite the Ready to Learn Block Grant funding increase for this year, districts’ basic education subsidies are flat-funded and have not recovered to the level of funding they’ve had in 2010-11.

Corbett claims the expiration of nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus funds that supported the state’s basic education subsidies are to blame for schools’ fiscal crisis while the PSEA claims federal and state governments established an expectation that the state would continue to support the basic education formula once federal funds ran out.

In the 2014-15 school year, Altoona Area is operating under a $96.3 million budget with $364 fewer state dollars per student – a total of $2.8 million less in state funding – than when Corbett took office (2010-11), according to the PSEA. That figure includes reductions in charter school reimbursements and district basic education subsidies.

“The bottom line is school districts all over the state are in a funding crisis. … Nearly 800 academic programs have been eliminated or reduced since 2010-11, and class sizes have increased in 64 percent of districts, according to a school survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials,” Keever said.

And the largest chunk of the new funding has strings attached. Hollidaysburg Area administrators said there are guidelines for how districts can spend Ready to Learn money. Districts can use it to maintain the all-day kindergarten programs or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives.

State Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, said he continues to fight to loosen some of the mandates that are attached to the funding so that districts have control to spend state funding as they deem appropriate.

“At the end of the day, state funding for public education is higher than it’s ever been. Whether that meets the needs of the school districts is certainly debatable, and in some cases, I would agree it does not,” he stated in an email.

“The bottom line is we produced a balanced budget with the revenue streams we had available. Next year’s budget will be a different subject altogether. You could have different leadership in both the General Assembly and the governor’s office with different ideas on how to increase or decrease revenue. For instance you could have more votes to tax natural gas, but that will all play out next year,” Fleck said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.