Erie Times-News: State Legislature OKs recurring funding for Erie schools
By Ed Palattella
House votes Tuesday to make $14 million in additional aid permanent for Erie School District. Senate voted in favor of the measure on Monday.
The Erie School District’s long fight for additional state funding has ended with a stunning political win in Harrisburg that will shape the 11,500-student public school system in the years ahead.
With a vote from the state House on Tuesday evening, the Legislature approved $14 million in recurring funding for the Erie School District, a long-desired financial boost that the district said it will use to eliminate its short- and long-term deficits, launch new programs and undertake building projects to improve its 15 schools.
“Today is a watershed moment for Erie’s Public Schools,” Superintendent Brian Polito said after the House vote, which occurred shortly after 6:15 p.m.
“It is a culmination of going on two years of work and so many people coalescing,” said Polito, who was in Harrisburg on Tuesday for a previously scheduled dinner at the official residence of Gov. Tom Wolf.
“It really allows us to balance our budget in the long term and move out of budget-cutting mode and into financial stability,” Polito said. “We are really going to start planning for the future.”
Polito praised Erie’s legislative delegation, particularly state Sen. Dan Laughlin, of Millcreek Township, R-49th Dist., who was elected in November on a pledge to get additional state funding for the Erie School District. Polito called Laughlin’s work on the issue “tireless.”
Laughlin, who was in Harrisburg as the Senate and House continue budget negotiations, called the push for the funding a group project that involved the Erie area’s Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
“I am so excited that we were able to get the recurring money for the Erie School District,” Laughlin said. “It is a start of a new chapter for the city of Erie. I am just happy I was able to play a role in it. This was a big win and I am excited for the city.”
The $14 million in recurring funding is contained in a budget-implementation bill that the House approved in a 109-75 vote on Tuesday. The language that pertains to the district is on Page 44 of the legislation, House Bill 674, which is the fiscal code bill.
Wolf has said he supports the Erie School District’s efforts. Polito on Tuesday said Wolf and the GOP leadership in the state Senate helped bring “bi-partisan attention to Erie’s financial crisis” that “made today’s events a reality.”
An extended push
The spending package of the state budget, passed June 30, included an additional payment of $14 million to the school district in fiscal 2017-18, which started July 1. The district since then had waited on legislation to make the increase recurring, or permanent from year to year.
The General Assembly has yet to pass a budget revenue package to accompany the $32 billion budget spending package and complete the state budget, which was 116 days overdue as of Tuesday. The passage of Tuesday’s fiscal code bill ensures that the Erie School District will get the $14 million in recurring funding once the final budget 2017-18 becomes law.
The revenue package will detail how the state will fund the budget and fill a $2.2 billion budget gap. The fiscal code establishes how the state will spend the money in the budget — once the budget is final. The Senate and House were to continue budget negotiations on Wednesday.
The Erie School District’s former superintendent, Jay Badams, starting advocating for increased state funding more than a year ago, citing data that showed the district was receiving less in state funding compared with more affluent school districts in Erie County and statewide.
As part of the plan, the district in June closed two elementary schools and merged three of its four high schools to save money and help eliminate a $9.5 million deficit this year. The district feared that lack of a long-term funding boost would erase its financial gains and force the district into a receivership that the state would have had to address.
The district’s chances for recurring funding suffered in September, when the House passed a revenue plan that eliminated the Senate language that would have made the $14 million in additional funding recurring.
The House vote on Tuesday as well as the Senate vote on Monday restored the district’s hopes and made the recurring funding part of Pennsylvania law. The votes came as Republicans in the state House continued to balk at budget measures that Wolf, the state Senate and House Democrats support.
“We confronted ideologues, funding gimmicks and anti-worker provisions along the way,” said state Rep. Pat Harkins, of Erie, D-1st Dist., who voted for the fiscal code bill and the recurring funding. “We didn’t win every battle, but the $14 million continuing supplement is a solid win for public education in Erie County.”
The Erie School District continues to wait on the outcome of pending legislation that would require a state-appointed financial administrator to oversee the district’s finances once the district gets the $14 million in additional aid. The House included the requirement in an omnibus education bill that narrowly passed a week ago and that is before the Senate.
“We look forward to beginning this next chapter in the history of our district and are humbled by the efforts of so many who have made this work possible,” he said. “Together, we can and will improve the educational outcomes of Erie’s students and, through this work, ensure a bright future for our entire community.”
Ed Palattella can be reached at 870-1813 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNpalattella.