New rules could hurt rural schools

Blair schools could lose funding under new formula

Off the cuff comments by Gov. Tom Wolf surprised some at a press conference a week ago when he called for a major change to the way Pennsylvania distributes its largest pot of school money.

The press conference was about grants for removing lead-based paint, but Wolf reportedly said the state should push all basic education money through a new formula that it adopted two years ago.

While most students attend districts that would benefit from the change, most districts would lose out — more than 300 in all, according to reports by WHYY, a PBS member television station serving Philadelphia.

Blair County schools would be among those that lose funding under the new formula, which weighs student population more heavily than the current fund distribution.

When the Pennsylvania General Assembly adopted the formula in 2016, there was bipartisan support to phase in the formula slowly over time, easing the funding loss many rural districts would experience.

The report from WHYY stated Wolf did not elaborate whether he’d support a sudden shift in how the formula is applied or if he’d prefer a staggered approach.

Equity First, a group pushing for a more aggressive implementation of the new formula, estimates the state currently gives too much funding to schools, including all Blair County schools, while others, such as York County, are vastly underfunded.

The new formula takes into account things like poverty, student enrollment and tax effort and has only been used so far to distribute increases in state education funds since 2015 — only 8 percent of the total.

A lawsuit could push the formula to be implemented faster, but that would have major negative repercussions in many shrinking districts, especially in rural parts of the state.

In 2014, a group of school districts and advocates sued the state, saying the legislative and executive branches failed to adequately fund Pennsylvania’s schools, violating the education clause in the state constitution.

With the formula now in place, Republican lawmakers believe the basis for the lawsuit has evaporated, according to WHYY. The plaintiffs, however, note that only a small fraction of state aid is currently pushed through the formula, and they believe their complaint still stands.

Senate Education Com­mittee Chairman John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, noted in an email that the state is currently dealing with a lawsuit regarding the formula.

“The court is looking at this issue for the first time; it was always deemed to be a matter exclusively for the Legislature. The new funding formula weighs student population more heavily, removing the ‘hold harmless’ clause that protects schools that are losing students from getting less money than they did in the previous year,” Eichel­berger stated in an email. “Most of the schools in this part of the state have lost students from when the (hold harmless) rule was placed into effect in the early 1990s.”

Eichel­ber­ger wrote that the state is moving toward the new funding formula slowly to allow those schools to adjust, but that the court case may change the formula immediately.

“I have spoken with the schools in our region about this case months ago. We will not take action on any bill that changes the formula until this case is resolved,” Eichelberger said.

He also blogged about the news coverage of Wolf’s comments in Philadelphia. He wrote that Wolf two years ago “agreed to the current roll out over time of the new funding formula because of the negative impact an immediate change would have on most of the school districts in the Common­wealth.

“The article also missed the fact that the state is currently being sued by various education groups over the current mix of old and new formulas, demanding an immediate change to solely the new formula (just what the governor now says he wants, which is not what he said and did prior to this point).”

Attorney Carl Beard of Beard Legal Group, who serves as solicitor for school districts in Blair County and across the state, said the new formula could make local taxpayers shoulder more of the burden.

“This came up in another district in Franklin County. The superintendent was leaving to go to another district. His parting comments were ‘please keep in mind the implications of the funding formula; some of the neighboring schools are going to make out like bandits, but we could lose several million dollars over next few years,'” Beard said. “I believe that same concern will carry over to Blair schools as well. Rural schools in Blair County can be significantly impacted in a negative way.”

Beard said the hold harmless clause is a necessity for rural schools.

“At end of the day, you need the hold harmless provisions that rural schools have fought for so long litigation-wise. They should be consulted on the new formula because they know what the impact (of losing the hold harmless clause) is going to be,” Beard said.

“I think the new formula has to be phased in with a hold harmless provision or schools without rapid growth are going to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in a year or millions of dollars in a several year period,” he said.

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