The 2013-14 state budget passed June 30 included a modest 2 percent increase in the subsidy distributed to public school districts. For two Centre County districts, however, highly specific funding rules passed July 1 provided unexpected $500,000 windfalls, set to repeat indefinitely.
Officials in at least one Blair County district complained last week that the newly introduced supplements - which totaled a quarter of the state's education-subsidy increase but went to just 21 districts - were little more than earmarks, handed out through legislative influence rather than financial need.
Of the 21 districts that got pieces of the $30 million in supplements, the only two in west-central Pennsylvania were Penns Valley Area and Philipsburg-Osceola. Penns Valley is represented by state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre; much of Philipsburg-Osceola is set to join his electoral district before next year's elections.
Days before the budget deadline, the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Corman heads as chairman, added and unanimously approved the supplements, some of which carried requirements so specific that only one district received them.
"The politicians went to work for them and got it for them," Robert Vadella, Spring Cove School District superintendent, said at a Monday board meeting. "I saw [Philipsburg-Osceola] in the paper - I thought, 'Oh, isn't this nice for them.'"
Spring Cove, which serves a student body comparable in size to Philipsburg-Osceola, received a 1.6 percent subsidy increase in next year's budget, according to a Department of Education spreadsheet. With its newly introduced supplement, Philipsburg-Osceola received a 6 percent increase.
Penns Valley's subsidy shot up 13 percent in the new budget. Meanwhile, Cambria Heights, a comparably sized district not on the supplement list, is set for a 1 percent increase.
In a June 29 news release, Corman announced that he had "secured an extra $500,000 in the Pennsylvania State Education Budget" for Philipsburg-Osceola, which straddles the Centre-Clearfield county line. While the supplements are updated annually, state officials said, the $500,000 each awarded to Philipsburg-Osceola and Penns Valley will be repeated every year as part of their regular subsidies.
"Obviously, it makes it a lot more comfortable. It takes a lot of pressure off us," Philipsburg-Osceola Superintendent Gregg Paladina said in a July 1 Centre Daily Times article. "I already talked to [Business Manager Michael Conte]. ... He was downright giddy about it."
On Wednesday, Paladina said the money came as a surprise - the district didn't do "anything extra" to receive it, he said.
Administrators at Penns Valley did not return calls seeking comment, nor did Corman.
In his release announcing the Centre County supplements, Corman cited the "severe financial needs" Philipsburg-Osceola administrators face.
"I believe now is the appropriate time for the Commonwealth to assist schools that are in particular financial stress and help the local residents by providing a quality education for all the students," Corman said in the announcement.
At Spring Cove, board members have questioned the definition of "financial stress." Neither Philipsburg-Osceola nor Penns Valley raised taxes this year, and the windfall spared Philipsburg-Osceola administrators from dipping into their reserve funds, the Centre Daily Times reported.
Paladina said his district will use the money to add positions and back long-delayed facilities upgrades.
At the same time, Spring Cove furloughed two teachers and raised taxes in hopes of eliminating a budget deficit. Neighboring Claysburg-Kimmel furloughed five teachers and took money from its reserve fund, as well.
"I think they managed to redefine [distress] for their purposes," Vadella said.
School supplements are a standard annual procedure, Department of Education Press Secretary Tim Eller said Tuesday, though they take different forms with each new budget. An enrollment-and-attendance-based subsidy, distributed to each of the state's 500 districts, is common, he said.
But the supplements added in the Senate Appropriations Committee affect only a handful of districts, with some set to receive millions annually from this year on. Philipsburg-Osceola is the sole district receiving the highly specific "rural school district supplement," and Penns Valley is alone in receiving the "small school district supplement."
Schools qualifying for the $500,000 rural supplement, for example, must have daily attendance between 1,800 and 2,000; tax millage between 19 and 21; and a market-value-to-personal-income aid ratio between 0.67 and 0.7. As it turns out, of 500 districts, only Philipsburg-Osceola meets those requirements.
"Historically, that does happen. Does it happen every year? No, not every year," Eller said. "It's part of the budget negotiation process between the governor and the General Assembly."
State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, an Appropriations Committee member who represents Philipsburg-Osceola and is set to represent half of the school district after legislative map changes, called the supplements "the gift that keeps on giving" on Wednesday.
"That was negotiated in the final process of the budget ... There are special addendums as things go on," Wozniak said. "A guy says, 'I've got a problem with my district,' so another guy says, 'Hey, I've got a problem with my district, too.'"
Spring Cove board members questioned why Blair County's representatives in Harrisburg haven't secured similar bonus funding for local districts.
One possible explanation: State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, doesn't sit on the influential Appropriations Committee. Asked Tuesday about the school supplements, Eichelberger said he couldn't recall specifics.
"Some of the people in leadership positions can get these things that others don't," Eichelberger said. "But it's partly perception. ... I don't think there was something that went to Sen. Corman's district that others didn't get."
Legislative influence is closely tied with committee positions: Eichelberger cited his role as Local Government Committee chairman, noting that he has pressed rules that could benefit third-class cities like Altoona.
But those left out of the funding windfall have shown little patience for the newly passed supplements.
As the Spring Cove board prepared to vote for a comparatively small $12,000 state bonus Monday, board member Amy Acker-Knisely complained of other districts' "financial stress" designations.
"I think it's ridiculous," Acker-Knisely said. "I'm not saying we don't need the [$12,000], but we're all in the same boat."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.