26 Jul Lawmaker: School Funding in Jeopardy (PA)July 26, 2010
By: Charles Schillinger Source: Standard Speaker
School districts are being cautioned to be "exceedingly prudent" with spending as a $250 million increase in basic education funding remains in jeopardy, a leading Senate Republican wrote this week in a letter to school superintendents.
While the letter doesn’t say education funding will be targeted directly, state Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola, R-15, Harrisburg, noted basic education funding was significantly increased in the 2010-11 budget, adding further in the letter "we must all learn to do more with less."
At issue is an $850 million revenue source in the 2010-11 state budget that assumes U.S. Congress will approve Medicaid assistance for states, dubbed FMAP, in this fiscal year. A partisan divide in the U.S. Senate has left the funding in limbo, and it is unclear when it will be approved, said Larry Smar, spokesman for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
"Senator Casey wants a vote and wants one soon, but we’re stuck in the same situation where we can’t get to 60," he said, referring to the need for 60 votes for cloture in the senate.
Piccola, who is chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, wondered if, rather than when, it would be approved in his letter.
"It’s looking more and more unlikely that Congress is going to approve it," said Senate Education Committee executive director Dave Transue.
While uncertainty over FMAP funding is not new, Piccola’s letter made school districts all the more fearful its funding would be targeted.
Hazleton Area School District is projected to receive as much as $35 million in basic education and PA PACT, or stimulus, funds for 2010-2011, but budgeted conservatively, anticipating only $32 million, Business Manager Anthony Ryba said.
That gives the district a $3 million cushion should the state slash its basic education allocation, he said. If deeper cuts are made, the district will have to prioritize positions and projects it hopes to carry out in 2010-2011.
The $32 million built into Hazleton Area’s budget will pay for, among other things, a professional development program that will help high school staff adjust to a scheduling change, textbooks and modular classroom units, and an expa nded reading program at two local schools.
Ryba received Piccola’s letter, but remains optimistic that the district will receive the full allotment.
"The money is appropriated," Ryba said. "I’m pretty hopeful we’re going to get it."
North Pocono School District will be monitoring its expenses closely and staying aware of the situation with state funding, said Superintendent Bryan McGraw.
"They’re essential to our operation," McGraw said of state funds. "We have to keep our taxpayers in mind."
Scranton Superintendent Bill King said the district will truly need every penny the state can offer, and he hopes the federal funding comes through.
"I’ve indicated to the school directors that we have to exercise restraint and watch every dollar we spend as we’re going into our budget season," he said.
Piccola, in his letter, doesn’t say that Senate Republicans want to target school district funding. But it does urge districts "to not rely upon state funds that have been approved, but may never come to fruition."
"He did vote against the budget," Transue said of Piccola. "And one of the reasons he voted against the budget is because it wasn’t in balance because of FMAP, and the increase (in education funding) was extraordinary when there were other line items that suffered."
Gary Tuma, spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell, didn’t disagree with the warning Piccola made in his letter. When the budget was approved, the governor had given similar warnings .
"What he would advise school districts and everyone that relies on state money is to be cautious until we find out we have the FMAP money," Tuma said.