The good news: Lancaster County school districts will get a slight funding increase under the 2019-20 state budget signed by the governor last week.
The bad news: School officials say it's not enough to cover increasing pension and charter school tuition costs, among other unfunded mandates, leaving them no choice but to ask taxpayers to fork over the rest.
"While we welcome the slight increase in the basic education subsidy for 19/20, it unfortunately continues to do little to address the mandated costs that drive a school district's budget," Manheim Township Superintendent Robin Felty said in an email.
"As a result," Felty added, "there continues to be a significant reliance on local funding, which makes up 78% (about $78 million) of MTSD's 19/20 revenue budget."
This year's basic education funding appropriation is 2.5% more for Lancaster County school districts than in 2018-19, data from the state Department of Education shows. Increases range from 1.8% in Solanco to 6.4% in Conestoga Valley.
Statewide, basic education funding increased 2.6%, or $160 million, to $6.7 billion; however, less than $700 million will flow through the fair funding formula enacted in 2016 to help historically underfunded districts catch up to their peers.
One such underfunded district is Conestoga Valley, which, according to district Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski, has consistently been in the bottom 1% of adequately funded districts in the state.
If all money was distributed through the formula, Zuilkoski said, Conestoga Valley would receive an additional $9 million annually.
"Until that time when, and if, we hit the equitably funded threshold, we will continue to do our due diligence and practice fiscal responsibility to ensure that all students continue to be provided with outstanding, positive learning opportunities," he said.
But districts can only do so much with limited state funding, as a January report from Temple University's Center on Regional Politics, titled “A Tale of Haves and Have-Nots,” outlines.
The report, co-authored by retired Solanco business manager Tim Shrom, described that almost 300 Pennsylvania school districts — the “Have-Nots” — will experience significant fiscal stress in the next five years, forcing them to reduce expenditures by cutting programs or raise revenues by increasing property taxes.
The projected five-year increase in pension and charter school payments — $1.2 billion — far outweighs projected state funding increases for basic education and special education — $667 million — the report states.
Included in the “Have-Nots” list are Cocalico, Columbia Borough, Octorara Area, Pequea Valley and Solanco.
“Under these pressures we continue to work to attract empathetic and inspiring teachers and staff,” Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss said. “These are certainly good practices that we would embrace in any economic climate, but in the current climate of rising costs, unfunded mandates, and required expenditures, the challenge is growing and will continue to do so.”