INDIANA: Beware school funding resolution, Sen. White cautions boards
March 11, 2014 11:00 AM
by CHAUNCEY ROSS
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The argument is not uncommon in area school boardrooms at budget time each year.

Pennsylvania is underfunding the public schools and local property owners have to carry a bigger share of the burden, school directors often say.

And school boards call for the state to live up to its obligation to pay 50 percent of the cost of public education, as it did in the mid 1970s.

This year, there’s an organized push for the General Assembly to review school funding — an initiative by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association — but an area legislator is warning that if the state sets up a new subsidy formula, it’s going to put a big hurt on Indiana County area schools.

Despite that word of caution, the Indiana Area School District board voted Monday in favor of the PSBA resolution supporting a formula “that is predictable and addresses adequacy and equity for all school districts.”

Small, rural schools in the 41st Senatorial District would get far less money, and more cash would go to the growing districts in urban areas, especially in the Philadelphia region, said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana.

With no signs that the state has the amount of money needed to restore 50 percent support of basic education, any new formula would simply rework the way existing funds are distributed. And if it is according to enrollment, the area schools now benefiting from subsidies based on years-old attendance figures will lose out.

“The schools districts back home need to be careful of what they wish for,” White said. “If these people (in eastern Pennsylvania) get control and go to a per-pupil funding formula, it’s going to kill our schools.”

The last funding formula set up in 1994 included a “hold harmless” provision that protects schools with declining enrollment from losing money.

“If a school had 1,000 kids and now they have 800, they are still getting reimbursed like they had 1,000,” White said. “If you take that away — and you think property taxes are high now?”

White concedes that the numbers favor the urban schools — “actually my argument is pretty weak, and I understand their complaint,” he said.

“But if that happens and they change to per-pupil funding, we’ll only have one or two high schools in Indiana County. That’s how serious I take this.”

Indiana school board Vice President John Barbor led the argument to reject the PSBA resolution at the school board’s meeting on Monday.

“Districts have supported this on the notion that the way by which the General Assembly divides support among the districts in the commonwealth is just plain unfair, and I think that is probably true,” Barbor said. “My problem is that I believe it is unfair in a manner that benefits this district.

“If the formula were to be adjusted to present student populations, not only would Indiana but the other districts in the county would likely be losers in the exchange.

“It’s a difficult line to walk, because if you appeal to fairness, the resolution has a great deal to recommend it. If you appeal to self-interest, it does not,” he said.

Board member Deborah Clawson supported the resolution.

“As often as we say, the Department of Education and Harrisburg fail to follow through on the commitment to provide a public education system, according to its own statutes, because it’s true,” Clawson said. “I think the message has to be that the system that will be fair will be one that is equitable, does not give any political advantage to any region of the state, and is based on student population and student needs.

“I would be very upset to see any negative impact on Indiana, but I can’t stand on both sides of the fence. A fair an equitable system is what we need, and partiality, no matter how well-deserved, does not fit into that.”

Barbor agreed that the formula is not fair.

“But I know that at some point, if the board passes this resolution, I will be asked by one or more of our representatives what we thought we were doing, and why we armed people they have been trying to keep at bay in the Legislature, with resolutions from their own district saying the position they are taking is not supported by their own school boards,” Barbor said.

District Superintendent Dale Kirsch recommended that the board pass the resolution.

The current funding mechanism, he said, is nonexistent and simply a way to give out money to the districts in the state.

“It should be based on the number of students, the relative wealth, the disadvantaged students … all those things,” Kirsch said. “If someone else deserves more money, they shouldn’t get it from Indiana, and if that’s the direction they are going to go … in my opinion, that’s not going to pass. If you start taking from some districts to give to others, that’s not a formula for something passing at the state.”

The resolution calls for a formula based on factors that local school officials understand and can use to accurately predict how much support their districts would get from the state.

A formula like that, Kirsch said, would be self-correcting.

“Adjusting the formula is not going to fix it overnight. It didn’t get the way it is now overnight, it will take a period of time. … I think as a state we don’t want it to continue and get worse.”

Board president Thomas Harley and directors Clawson, Hilliary Creely, Robert Gongaware, Brian Petersen, and John Uccellini voted for the resolution.

Barbor, Diana Paccapaniccia and Julia Trimarchi-Cuccaro voted against it.

Lawmakers across the state know the implications for the schools in their home districts, but there’s no active move under way to change the funding structure, White said. But he warns that the campaign by the PSBA could push some urban legislators to act.

“So far they haven’t messed with the funding formula … and I have not heard any reason to panic as of now,” White said. “The growing school districts are very weary. The schools in the southeast are getting 10 to 15 percent of their funding from the state. We’re getting 45 to 70 percent.

“The 14 years I’ve been here, we’ve been able to fight it off, and I’m hopeful we’ll be successful again. But before they start endorsing any funding formula change, they better make sure they read all the fine print,” he said.

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