Local school districts will see state money for basic education increase by an average of 3 percent under the budget signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, a bit more than most expected, but still far less than they were getting from the state before the Republican took office.
The final budget increased basic education funding by $129.8 million, $32.5 million more than Corbett had proposed when presenting his plan earlier in February. The House and Senate upped the increase before sending the bill for Corbett’s signature.
There is no increase in state money for Special Education Funding or for the “Accountability Block Grants,” which Corbett had sought to cut completely three years ago. The money, used most often for pre-kindergarten or full-day kindergarten classes, remains at $100 million, well below the $254 million in 2010-11.
Luzerne County’s 11 districts will see a combined increase of $3.9 million.
The smallest increase, percentage-wise, is at Northwest Area, the county’s smallest district by enrollment, where state funding will go up an estimated $87,469, or 1.3 percent. The biggest increase is in Hazleton Area, the county’s largest district, which will see an additional $1.7 million or 5.4 percent according to figures released by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
While the Republican-controlled legislature and Corbett could brag for the third year in a row about passing a budget by the June 30 deadline — a deadline Harrisburg became notorious for missing during former Gov. Ed Rendell — it was still finalized after local districts had passed their own budgets, basing their estimates of state funding on Corbett’s original proposal.
Slightly more money
That means most districts will likely get more money from the state than they anticipated, but its not much of a boon. “It’s about $42,000 more than we expected,” Wyoming Valley West Finance Manager Joe Rodriguez said Monday. “That doesn’t make much of a difference, but we’ll take it.”
Wilkes-Barre Area School District will be getting about $100,000 more than it expected, Business Manager Leonard Przywara said, but the money likely will go into the district’s fund balance at the end of the year, a reserve the district tapped last year and this year to cover shortfalls between income and spending.
This year’s budget calls for about $1.8 million to be drawn from the fund balance, a move that helped avoid a tax increase, but that will knock the reserve down to about $4.5 million. It was about $7.5 million at the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Przywara noted that the increase, while welcome, is small compared to the cuts Corbett enacted his first year in office.
“For example, they eliminated charter school reimbursement,” Przywara said, referring to money districts used to get when students enrolled in charter schools to compensate for the loss of state funding that went to the charter school with the child. “We were getting almost 30 percent of our costs back, that was almost $1.5 million.
The state also increased money for the Head Start-run Pre-K Counts program for low-income preschoolers by $5 million (6 percent) and the amount of money it gives for Head Start’s other programs by $2 million, but none of that is coming to Luzerne County.
“We did put in for money for an additional classroom for Pre-K Counts, that would have been 18 more children,” Luzerne County Head Start Director Lynn Biga said. “We didn’t get it.”
Biga said she had heard that the state wanted to expand services into counties that didn’t already have Head Start, and that the increase may have gone toward that goal rather than increasing funding for existing programs. Luzerne County Head Start is expecting $990,360 in state money this year, “the same as last year,” she said, which will help serve 126 children, also the same as last year.
Advocates now hopeful
Still, the increase in money for early education was welcome by advocates who have long pointed to statistics showing quality early education and day care can pay big dividends later by reducing the number of students in special education and decreasing odds the students will later drop out or turn to crime.
In a press release, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President Joan Benso called the budget “a hopeful sign that the state policymakers are beginning to prioritize common sense investments in our kids.”
Higher education also fares slightly better in the new budget, with a 0.8 percent increase for state related institutions — Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln University — and the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary and infectious disease program. That increase, which means $2 million more for Penn State — was not in Corbett’s original proposal.
And the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center notes funding was slashed for state and state-related institutions by 19 percent in 2011-12.