Republican state representatives in Monroe and Carbon counties are planning a lawsuit aimed at overturning the decades-old formula Pennsylvania uses to determine school funding.
Doyle Heffley, who represents Carbon County, has joined with Monroe County representatives Mario Scavello, Rosemary M. Brown, and Mike Peifer (who also represents Pike and Wayne counties) to file the suit in Commonwealth Court to have the state's 1991 funding formula ruled unconstitutional.
Heffley on Thursday said he had no choice but to vote to disburse funds using the formula last year when the state budget demanded deep cuts in school funding.
"Last year, it was the only formula there to drive that money out. If you don't vote for that money to go out, it doesn't go to the schools," he said. "We want to change the method. It's difficult for growing districts to manage their budges without huge property tax increases."
He cited as an example Penn Forest Township's explosive growth, and consequent increase in the Jim Thorpe Area School District's property tax.
Heffley said he and his colleagues "want to see money being given back per pupil, the way it was until 1991. They took those numbers from that year, and that's what the formula is based on. This (lawsuit) is a huge opportunity for the faster growing school districts to get some equity in the school funding formula.
"I've always said this formula wasn't right," he said. "Property taxes are one of my main priorities, and this is a first step in bringing about property tax relief. There will be many more."
Scavello said his county has seen tremendous growth in school enrollment, but without corresponding state funding.
"For more than 20 years, school districts in growth areas, like those in Monroe County, have been penalized, and they have lost out on millions of dollars they should have been getting," he said. "While school districts in other parts of the state are seeing their enrollment decline over the past couple of decades, their state share of revenue has increased."
Scavello specifically pointed to the hold harmless provision in the state Education Code that was established in 1991. It states that no school district can receive less state funding than the year before and is based on census results from 1991. As a result, Monroe County's school districts, like many other fast-growing school districts across the state, rank at or near the bottom in per-pupil aid statewide.
For instance, East Stroudsburg Area School District is believed to have lost at least $65 million in state basic education aid since the 1994-95 school year because of hold harmless.
"Many lawmakers, myself included, believe that state funding should follow the student," Brown said. "A school district's needs are based upon the number of children they are educating. From the number of teachers in the classrooms, to the quantity of books and materials, to the desks and chairs in each room, population drives the per pupil cost of educating that student, and the state's funding formula should follow that model."
"This hold harmless provision is blatantly unfair and leaves our state's most vulnerable citizens footing the bill for education costs across the state," said Heffley. "The reality is that seniors across the state are often forced from their homes by property taxes that surpass and outlive their mortgages. But unlike mortgages, which eventually are paid off, property taxes never go away and tend to increase year after year. This has been a serious issue and concern to residents across my district, and that's why I support any measure to level the playing field when it comes to property taxes across the state."
East Stroudsburg business manager Patricia Bader compiled a statistical comparison that ranked East Stroudsburg dead last among 500 school districts in average per-pupil attendance poverty aid, just behind Pocono Mountain at $1,465.
The lawmakers contend that the provision is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The lawsuit also seeks to reimburse local school districts for lost revenue under the 1991 formula. If the Commonwealth Court rules that the provision is unconstitutional, the General Assembly would be forced to develop a new, fairer formula.
"Nothing is more important to the future of our commonwealth than investing in the education of our children," Peifer said. "While I believe our local schools are doing a great job with their increasingly limited resources, each year that goes by with substandard support is a lost opportunity to grow the educational experience of our children. The formula MUST change."
The lawmakers pointed out that with a fairer funding formula, the school property tax burden would likely be lowered because more state aid would help balance out education funding.
"School funding amounts can vary from year to year, but we have seen several years in a row, especially during the earlier part of the last decade, that the state share of funding did not keep pace with student population," Scavello said. "Even if state funding evens out with population for a few years, until the funding formula is changed, with every budget cycle we encounter, we run the risk of our schools failing to get their fair share of state funding." Brown agreed.
"We have heard from the Department of Education that it wants to examine the funding formula and perhaps make changes at some point, but the people of our communities cannot wait for the years it may take to develop a new funding formula," she said, noting that many in the legislature do not want the funding formula changed because they have benefitted unfairly for years. Although these members are initiating the lawsuit, the plaintiffs will be taxpayers from Monroe and Pike counties, along with residents from other growth areas in York and Adams counties and the Lehigh Valley.
They expect the lawsuit to be filed by the summer.