Late Monday, members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate were batting Gov. Tom Corbett's education budget back and forth like seals keeping a beach ball in the air while locally, officials said there was another animal no one was talking about the elephant in the room.
As first presented, Corbett's budget included a $241 million Ready to Learn block grant. The House budget eliminated that, replacing it with a $70 million basic education increase.
"Things have moved beyond that," said Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center Executive Director Sharon Ward. "The governor proposes $241 million for the block grant, the House scraps it and adds $70 million to the basic education fund, and the Senate scraps that!"
"The Senate cuts the Ready to Learn block grant to $100 million," she said. "I'm not sure how that would be driven out; it could go to a small number of districts."
Tamaqua School Board President Larry Wittig said the budget battle was being waged in "a tense political atmosphere." He said that there was an issue that wasn't being addressed: funding the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System.
"Everybody's beating around the bushes, arguing about priorities, but whatever they do it's not going to be enough to fund PSERS, which is the elephant in the room," Wittig said. "They can call it a block grant or a general subsidy or whatever they want to call it, the bottom line is that it's the total that counts the total amount a district gets is prioritized by the district to be used for whatever is most important to that district."
In 1997, a school district's contribution to the system was 10.6 percent, which rose to 12.36 percent in 2013 and 16.36 percent in 2014. In 2015, the contribution amount will be 21.4 percent.
Kenneth Marx Jr., business manager for Panther Valley School District, said administrators had calculated the budget based on the original block grant numbers.
"The budget was completed using the block grant numbers, and we will eliminate the expenses that were attributed to the grand funds," Marx said. "With the preliminary numbers that I have seen today, the district stands to lose about $200,000.
The Panther Valley budget that directors have passed for 2014-15 included a 2-mill tax increase, bringing the total millage to 57.59. Last month, the Tamaqua Area School District passed a budget with a 0.93-mill increase. At that time, business manager Connie Ligenza said the district's contribution to PSERS will increase by $600,000 for 2014-15. That is comparable to area districts. For example, the Lehighton School District's contribution to PSERS for 2014-15 will be $717,000.
The proposals and counterproposals involving the education funding component of the governor's budget are just part of a spending plan that's still in flux. The Senate can amend the budget to include new revenue and restore some of the budget funding promised in the original budget.
Some leaders said it's time for the governor to concentrate on the immediate budget issues, and work on "ideological issues like pension reform and liquor privatization" at a later date.
"It is not too late for the governor to abandon his politically motivated budget negotiating position that will result in a cut budget and hardship for citizens across Pennsylvania," State Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said. "There is broad support in the General Assembly for a new severance tax for education, job creation and human services without linkage to ideological issues like pension reform and liquor privatization, which have no impact on this year's budget." Costa said that despite the projected $1.5 billion plus budget deficit, there are options available to the governor and legislative leaders to address key funding areas. He said that a new 5 percent shale extraction tax would generate in excess of $700 million, and expanding Medicaid would create $400 million more.