Fair Education Funding Protest

Damaris Rau, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, speaks to the crowd during a fair funding protest outside of the district office of state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, in Strasburg on Monday June 21, 2021.

Questions remain about how the three Lancaster County school districts that will receive a piece of the $100 million Level Up supplement in the 2021-22 state budget will use the money.

School officials with Columbia Borough, Ephrata Area and Lancaster school districts told LNP | LancasterOnline that discussions are still taking place as to how they will allocate the combined $2.9 million in supplemental funds coming their way.

Columbia Borough will receive $360,371, Ephrata Area will get $360,173, and Lancaster will see $2.1 million in funding this year from the $100 million Level Up supplement, which was distributed to the 100 poorest school districts in the state.

That’s in addition to increases in basic education funding included in the $40.8 billion Pennsylvania budget, signed June 30 by Gov. Tom Wolf. Lancaster County public schools will see a 3.9% boost in basic education funding from last year. Factoring in the Level Up supplement, that countywide increase rises to 5.5%.

“Additional funds make a difference for every school district,” Columbia Borough Superintendent Ashley Rizzo said in an email, “but for Columbia Borough School District the addition of an estimated $1 million may be the financial ‘springboard’ to provide resources, supports, and opportunities that just were not possible before.”

Columbia will receive a combined $1 million basic education funding increase with the Level Up supplement added in.

As for how the small, urban school district plans to spend the money, Rizzo said there will need to be “in-depth conversations” about that.

“The focus of these conversations will examine how to use these funds to create substantial, systemic, long-term impact for students for years to come,” she said, adding that the money represents about 14% of the school district’s 2021-22 budget.

Ephrata Area, similar to Columbia, has not decided yet how the school district will spend its extra money, spokeswoman Sarah McBee said.

‘Complex planning’

For School District of Lancaster, the plan is to consider using the money toward “plans to improve literacy and math, middle school math and equity at the high school,” Superintendent Damaris Rau said. The school district did not clarify any further, and Matt Przywara, the district’s chief financial and operations officer, said the administration plans to discuss potential solutions at their August school board meeting.

Deciding how best to use the Level Up supplement, plus millions in pandemic relief money from the federal government, requires a “complex planning process,” Przywara said.

Inequitable funding remains

The Level Up supplement targeted the 100 poorest school districts rather than the 100 most inequitably funded school districts. Inequitable funding has long been a thorn in Lancaster’s side, and it’s still embedded several years after a bipartisan group of legislators created the state’s fair funding formula, which has only applied to increases in education funding since it was implemented in 2016.

Even with the increase in education funding, including the Level Up money, the amount of funding is still 10% of the $25 million in additional funding the School District of Lancaster would get if all spending went through the formula.

The school district is currently a plaintiff in the state’s landmark school funding lawsuit, which is expected to go to trial in early September.

“Without full and fair funding, both our students and our taxpayers will continue to be short-changed,” Rau said.

While School District of Lancaster and Columbia Borough would have likely gotten funds if the money was based on equitable funding rather than poverty, Conestoga Valley, one of the most chronically underfunded school districts in the state, would have perhaps benefited the most of any county school.

Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski was unavailable for comment.

‘We already know what the problem is’

This approach, state Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, said, “flies in the face of the original fair funding formula.”

Martin, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he would have rather seen the additional $100 million funneled into the basic education formula rather than separated and doled out to the 100 poorest school districts.

“We already know what the problem is,” Martin said. “The fair funding formula isn’t being fully utilized.”

Democratic state Rep. Mike Sturla, of Lancaster, said if he had it his way, he would have expanded the Level Up funding supplement instead of “squirreling away” more than $2.5 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund, as legislators did in the 2021-22 budget.

Sturla said he hopes to work with Republicans to create a similar separate supplemental fund next year with more money for inequitably funded school districts.

“I’m optimistic that we can continue doing this into the future,” he said, “and we’re starting down the path of some sort of equitable funding.”

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