Bucks, Montgomery school district officials ask state lawmakers for more money for public education

Area school district superintendents, other administrators and school board members had a clear message for Harrisburg Wednesday during a roundtable discussion and news conference at the Centennial School District administration building in Warminster.

“Please give us more money.”

In a free-flowing discussion organized by a group called The Campaign For Fair Education Funding, officials said the lack of state financial support for education in Pennsylvania compared to most other states forces property taxes up more than they need to be, jeopardizes programs for students and causes other problems.

According to numbers provided by the organization, Pennsylvania funds 37 percent of the cost of its public schools, the 47th lowest amount among the nation’s 50 states.

And state requirements that it mostly doesn’t help pay for — such as contributions to employee pensions, charter school tuition and special education mandates — don’t help ease the financial burden either, said Bensalem Township School District Superintendent Samuel Lee.

Taking out those three items, school district expenses in Bensalem have gone up about 1.33 percent per year for the last eight years, he said.

“With expenses the school district can control, I think it’s done remarkably well,” said Lee. “But we are challenged in an incredible way by things we have no control over.”

He said the state is scheduled to provide about $4.3 million of Bensalem’s projected $28 million in special education expenses for 2017-2018.

“We like that we have a good reputation for teaching in special education,” said Lee. “We need to take care of our kids. That’s what we’re all in the business for, but at the same time it can present challenges.”

Centennial School District Superintendent David Baugh said he believes the state provides too much financial support for charter and cyber charter schools at the expense of regular public schools.

“It’s pouring good money after bad into education reform that just doesn’t make a difference for kids,” he said.

Centennial school board member Mark Miller added that lack of financial support from the state leaves school district officials scrambling to come up with revenue.

“We’re refinancing bonds,” he said. “Our superintendent and business manager have found novel ways to keep us in business.”

Though he didn’t attend Wednesday’s event, state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18, of Bensalem, said when reached by telephone afterward that he agreed the state should provide more money for public education.

He said most of the revenue from his proposed extraction tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas and oil drilling in the state would be funneled into education, if the legislation passes.

“We’ve tried to increase funding a little every year but it should be a lot more,” said DiGirolamo. “With the lack of funding from the state, school districts are forced to raise property taxes higher and higher, and that makes it hard on homeowners, especially senior citizens.”

Miller said a recent report of $4.4 billion in surplus funds being held by Pennsylvania school districts is misleading because most of that money is set aside to help pay for things like rapidly escalating pension costs. The actual unassigned fund balance, or surplus, is probably closer to $1.4 billion, he estimated.

With state legislators often passing budgets past the July 1 deadline, Morrisville School District Business Administrator Jason Harris said there is uncertainty and then, often, disappointment at the amount of money coming from the state.

“It’s kind of like waiting for Christmas and thinking you’re going to get a Maserati and ending up with a Yugo,” he said.

Others attending Wednesday’s event were Upper Dublin school board members Sara Johnson Rothman and Art Levinowitz.

“We have been forced to increase taxes for our homeowners again and again and again,” said Rothman. “We’re trying to decrease the increases. The proportion of state funding is just not fair.”

The state provides money for school districts in various areas, including a basic subsidy, special education, transportation and Social Security and pension reimbursements, officials said.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed 2017-2018 budget has the basic education subsidy going up $100 million.

“It’s essential the final budget includes an increase of at least that much,” said Bill Shoffler of the Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

Chris English: 215-949-4193; email: cenglish@calkins.com; Twitter: @courierc

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