Officials here happy with ed funding
BY BRIAN WALLACE, Staff Writer
Lancaster County school officials are relieved that Gov. Tom Corbett wants to increase education funding in next year's budget after proposing cuts the past two years.
But they're more than a little concerned about the governor's ability to enact the major reforms he's proposed in the budget -- on pensions and liquor sales -- that are linked to his increased support for public schools.
The good news is that basic education funding is slated to increase in 2013-14 by an average of 2.1 percent, or a total of nearly $3.3 million, for the 17 school districts serving Lancaster County students.
More than $160 million in basic education funding is slated for county schools, along with $36.7 million in special-education funding and $3.17 million in block grants for kindergarten and other early education programs.
In all, school districts here would get nearly $200 million from those funding sources under Corbett's spending plan, along with other state funds.
Statewide, basic education funding is slated to increase by $90 million, or 1.7 percent, for a total of $5.5 billion, Corbett said in Tuesday's budget address.
The state's public schools would receive a total of $9.83 billion, including $1.03 billion for special education, $100 million in Accountability Block Grants, $62 million for career and technical education, $634.5 million for student transportation and $544.5 million for school employee Social Security payments.
The budget boosts early education programs by $11.4 million, and would enable public schools to serve an additional 3,200 students next year, Corbett said.
School officials here said they're pleased at the basic education funding hikes but have reservations about other aspects of the budget.
Penn Manor is "thrilled" to be getting a 2.25 percent basic-ed increase, totaling $236,000, said superintendent Michael Leichliter, who was expecting a 1.5 percent hike.
Warwick will start off 2013-14 with an extra $204,467 as a result of its proposed increase, after facing two years of cuts in state funding, .
"It certainly gives us a nice place to start from," superintendent April Hershey said. "We're not starting at this huge deficit position of the last two years, when the state made significant cuts to our funding."
But Hershey said she's dismayed the budget includes no increase in special-education funding for the sixth year in a row and extends a moratorium on schools applying for state reimbursements for construction projects that was imposed last year.
She's also fearful the proposed education funding increases "will be held hostage by pension reform."
If the reforms Corbett introduced in his budget address aren't enacted, Hershey and other school officials said, they fear the governor may decide to cut education funding.
The governor's pension reform plan calls for all school employees hired after July 1, 2015, to be enrolled in a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), instead of the current defined benefits plan.
The proposal also would reduce the "multiplier" that determines future pension benefits, cap "pensionable" income at the Social Security wage base ($113,700 this year) and base a retiree's pension amount on the average of five years of salaries, instead of three.
Corbett also wants to reduce the huge increase in pension contributions that school districts and the state face in the next few years.
That rate, currently 12.36 percent of each school employee's salary, is slated to rise to 16.93 percent next year and continue to surge in future years, exceeding 25 percent in 2017-18.
By implementing the increases more gradually, Corbett estimated school districts could save $140 million next year and the state would save $2 billion over five years.
But the governor did not say what impact the changes would have on the system's growing unfunded liabilities, which now total $44 billion. A similar move to reduce the share paid by school districts and the state in the early 2000s resulted in a $6 billion increase in liabilities.
And it's not clear how much support the proposal, which the state's largest teachers' union strongly opposes, will get from lawmakers.
"We've got to take a wait-and-see approach to find out what has legs with the Legislature," said Brenda Becker, Hempfield School District superintendent. "What are they going to support? We really don't know at this point."
Just hours after the budget was unveiled, state Sen. Mike Brubaker, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the funding increases in Corbett's budget "are hinged on comprehensive reform to the current pension system and the privatization of the state's liquor store and the state lottery."
Corbett has already implemented a lottery privatization plan and has proposed selling off the state store system. About $1 billion from the sale of liquor licenses and other onetime revenue could fund a new grant program for public schools, he said.
But school officials aren't holding their breath that the money will come through, and they can't wait for the outcome of negotiations on the proposed legislation. They have their own budgets to approve in the coming months.
Leichliter said Corbett deserves praise "for his willingness to find creative ways to fund education," but he was critical of the governor for tying his spending plan to the passage of controversial reforms that face an uncertain future.
While the budget is promising on the surface, "it's based on a wish and a prayer," Leichliter said.