Rivera roundtable 1 (copy)

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera meets with Columbia Borough School District teachers and administrators in the high school library in September.

From a financial standpoint, Columbia Borough School District would be better off staying closed after the holiday break.

"If it wasn't for the kids, we wouldn't come back," board president Tom Strickler said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Both Columbia and the School District of Lancaster will draw on loans in January to stay open while waiting on state funding that's six months late.

And even as they deal with that challenge, school leaders are required to begin planning six months ahead — for their 2016-17 budgets.


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School boards and business managers around Lancaster County took their first stab at next year's budgets this month. Making such plans without knowing what the state will chip in is always tricky, they say, and the ongoing impasse in Harrisburg only makes it harder.

Guesswork

Budgeting this early is "all based on conservative estimates," said Chris Johnston, business manager at Penn Manor School District. But he can usually assume state funding will be 2 percent higher than the year before.

Not this year.

For Penn Manor's preliminary 2016-17 budget, he figured in the same amount of state funding as he did for 2015-16, but that number also was based on a guess. The amount of education funding that will be in the overall state budget still not been settled by lawmakers.


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Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf initially proposed increasing spending for K-12 public schools by $400 million this year, while Republicans suggested a $100 million increase. One of the failed compromise plans included a $350 million boost.

"The outlook was rosy in the spring," said Johnston. "(Now) you haven't got a clue."

Strickler said Columbia leaders also assumed flat funding in their initial budget planning.

Option to raise taxes

Another way districts are dealing with uncertainty in Harrisburg is by seeking the option to raise taxes above the statewide cap — the Act 1 index — next year.

At least nine of 17 local districts will apply for exceptions to the tax cap, school officials reported this week. School districts must have construction debt or excessive special education or pension costs to qualify for exceptions.


Related: How high school could property taxes go in 2016-17?


Several district business managers said the decision to pursue exceptions came from the continued state budget stalemate.

Donegal School District, for example, doesn't plan to use its exceptions "if a state budget is approved with adequate school funding," said Michelle Kendig, Donegal's director of business services, in an email Tuesday.

For the 2015-16 school year, six districts were allowed raise taxes above their cap. Three did. Johnston said that having that option while budgeting is helpful, but lawmakers' inaction remains frustrating.

"It's gotten to the point that I don't really pay attention to the emails I get that give me updates out of Harrisburg," he said. "Everything seems to just fall apart."