School funding frustrates leaders

School district administrators accustomed to stretching local funds during monthslong state budget impasses in recent years are relieved that a timely budget was passed Friday and is expected to be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Nonetheless, there’s a tinge of frustration with the funding increases districts expect to receive in 2018-19.

The vast majority of school districts in the Mirror’s coverage area in Blair, Cambria, Bedford, Clearfield, Centre and Hunting­don counties are set to receive 1 percent funding increases or less in both regular and special education areas.

Chestnut Ridge School District Superintendent Mark Kudlawiec described his district as having a lot of land but little cash, and it’s still trying to catch up from funding losses under the Gov. Tom Corbett administration, he said.

“We are trying to catch up, but we are not catching up. It’s tough. You can only tax your local effort so much,” he said.

Chestnut Ridge administration is recommending a tax increase again this year, the same as in the past two years.

Oddly, however, Kudlawiec said the state’s current funding formula gives more funding to districts that tax more.

Chestnut Ridge is set to receive the smallest funding percentage increase — 0.07 percent — for regular education of all school districts in Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Centre and Huntingdon counties, according to state House Demo­cratic Appropriations Committee documents.

He said that’s because the district is one of the least-taxing districts in the state, the fifth least, he said.

That basic education formula is based on five measures, he explained, one of them is a measure of potential taxing ability.

“We are the least taxing district in the state. By being good stewards for our taxpayers, it’s hurting us on our state funding now for basic education. Other districts are taxing their homes higher rate and getting more state funding,” Kudlawiec said. Another notch against rural districts like Chestnut Ridge is the sparsity factor. “We are a big district, but it comes down to how many people per square mile,” he said.

The seven Blair County school districts each are set to receive 1 percent funding increases or less in both regular and special education.

Altoona Area Superin­ten­dent Charles Prijatelj said he is appreciative of the increase.

“Obviously it’s not a huge increase, but all the support we can get, the better. That’s less stress on our local budget and taxpayers. I’m frankly very appreciative of our state Legislature,” Prijatelj said.

The state budget is on time this year. In contrast, during Wolf’s first year, a budget impasse stretched for nearly nine months.

“I think it’s on time this year because it’s an election year; they want to start campaigning,” Bellwood-Antis Superintendent Tom McInroy said.

He, too, is mostly appreciative of the funding increase his district is set to receive.

“If we would have stayed at level-funding for 20 years, we’d be in better shape. But the state’s been toying with funding formulas and made a mess of things since the mid ’80s. Now it’s gotten so complicated, and funding has been reducing. … But the fact that it’s going up is a good thing.” McInroy said. “And I know everyone cries money, and it’s not the answer. But it’s still a business; you need capital revenue to operate a business. We need money to educate kids and do it properly.”

McInroy said the added funding is needed to keep up with the orders or mandates that the state puts on districts without adding funding to cover the expense.

“With the state mandates out there — and they keep increasing them with no funding attached — the fact we do have some increased funding is a good sign,” he said.

By far, the biggest state mandate on districts is their contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retire­ment System. District contribution rates to the system have spiked annually from about 5 percent of a district’s employee payroll in 2009-10 to more than 30 percent of payroll now.

Hollidaysburg Area Superintendent Bob Gildea said the increase to pension contributions next year negates the funding increase from the state.

“Even though we are very appreciative any increase in state funding, our allotment does not even cover the increase in our pension obligation,” he said.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association released a statement Friday that it is pleased with the state budget, especially because it contains increases for education and school safety statewide.

“The spending plan retains Wolf’s original request of $100 million for the basic education subsidy and increase of about 1.7 percent from the current year,” the statement read. “It also contains $20 million more for pre-K programs, a $15 million increase for special education, and an additional

$30 million for career and technical education.”

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