Gov. Corbett gives February 2014 budget address

Gov. Tom Corbett proposes $241 million in new school funding in his February budget address. At left is House Speaker Sam Smith. At right is Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley.

A projected billion-dollar revenue shortfall has some state lawmakers advising schools not to count on millions in extra funding Gov. Tom Corbett proposed in February.

In his election-year budget address, Corbett announced Ready to Learn grants totaling $241 million in new school funds. Lancaster County's 16 districts would have split $8.4 million.

Without the money, some districts say they'll have to balance budgets by making cuts or drawing from reserves.

"Clearly my advice (to schools) would be not to count on (state) funding above what they were spending last year," said Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican from West Lampeter Township.

Smucker said revenue has fallen more than a billion dollars short of what the governor expected. With a state budget due July 1, he said, the Legislature will be looking to increase revenue and scale back proposed new spending.

"And one of the big places to go is education," the second-term senator said.

Budget negotiations continue

But Jay Pagni, a Corbett spokesman, said it's too soon to know how budget negotiations will affect school funding and declined to comment on what Smucker was advising districts.

The governor and legislative leaders will discuss priorities and propose a "fiscally prudent and responsible budget," Pagni said.

Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat who represents Lancaster, said he, like Smucker, advised the School District of Lancaster not to expect Ready to Learn funding of $2.2 million.

"The reality is (Corbett's) budget doesn't add up," said Sturla, noting Standard & Poor's warning that Pennsylvania must get its financial house in order or face a bond ratings downgrade.

Rep. Dave Hickernell, a Republican from West Donegal Township, said he, too, is telling school officials new funding is in doubt.

"The governor's proposal is usually a floor, and it usually winds up being at least that," Hickernell said. "I wouldn't count on that this year."

Hickernell said some new funding may be found, but it's unlikely to match what the governor proposed.

School officials frustrated

Michael Leichliter, superintendent of Penn Manor School District, expressed frustration about having to adopt a school budget without knowing what the state's share will be.

He said if the Ready to Learn grant is not funded, he'll recommend the school board use budgetary reserves to cover the $611,173 gap.

Tom Strickler, president of the Columbia school board, said the district passed a proposed final budget anticipating the $273,894 Ready to Learn money.

Now the board must open up the budget to find further cuts or take more from reserves, which Strickler said are approaching "a very dangerous low level."

"It's a definite surprise that they would cut education funds that the governor is recommending," he said. "I think it's more of a surprise that they didn't give an indication prior to boards having to approve preliminary budgets."

Columbia superintendent Kenneth Klawitter said the district has already committed to hiking property taxes 3.06 percent, which will raise new revenue equal only to half its special education costs.

"Now the legislature plans to reduce their support even more," Klawitter said. "The loss of funds will mean that we will continue to reduce planned expenditures in an already bare-bones budget."

Conestoga Valley would also have to reopen its budget if the $410,263 Ready to Learn grant falls through, spokesman Adam Aurand said. "There's not really a backup plan at this point," he said.

Under Corbett's initial proposal, the average increase in state funding for Lancaster County's districts was 6.2 percent.



Jeff Hawkes writes about social policy and the well-being of Lancaster County and its people for Lancaster Newspapers. He can be reached at jhawkes@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6141.