Local school officials skeptically optimistic on budget
Officials in two local school districts are cautiously optimistic about Gov. Corbett's proposed 2014-15 educational budget. They're happy to see more money through a new grant program and for special education, but disappointed that funding overall remains flat.
They're grateful, too, for possible pension relief, but many unanswered questions linger.
More, but better?
The Ready to Learn Grant is slated to replace the PA Accountability Block Grant, the allocation for which would boost funding for Southern Columbia Area from $68,555 this fiscal year to $270,566 in 2014-15; Shamokin Area from $203,878 to $694,841; Line Mountain from $78,245 to $283,647, and Mount Carmel Area from $124,089 to $441,654.
Southern Columbia Area Superintendent Paul Caputo said he's concerned with what restrictions might come with that allocation, and until then, he doesn't know if it's good or bad.
The Accountability Grant, which was used for classroom size reductions, pre-kindergarten or kindergarten classes, funded the district's elementary school salaries last year, Caputo said.
Shamokin Area Superintendent James Zack wasn't yet sure how it could impact Shamokin Area's next budget.
Business Manager Karen Colangelo said it would certainly help.
Shamokin Area is facing a deficit of $3,094,339 as the school board works with district officials to prepare a 2014-15 budget. The proposed grant funding would likely free up some funds to spend elsewhere in the budget, Colangelo said.
Perhaps of more help would be the governor's proposed short-term pension reform.
Shamokin Area's contribution in 2013-14 was 16.93 percent, or $1,571,012. The rate was to rise above 21 percent for next school year, Colangelo said.
Southern's contribution to the Public School Employees Retirement System is expected to increase to approximately $145,000, from $372,000 in 2013-14 to $517,000 in 2014-15, and then another $140,000 in 2015-16.
The Allentown Morning Call reported Tuesday, however, that Corbett's proposal would drop the contribution rate to about 2.3 percent. Should that hold through the legislative process, it would save Shamokin Area an estimated $1,353,684 - a significant help to the projected deficit.
In Southern Columbia, Superintendent Paul Caputo said that move would save the district approximately $230,000 in the upcoming budget. He had expected a 5 percent increase to the pension contribution.
But, he added, "It's short-term relief. I was hoping to have something more concrete."
While it would have a positive impact on next year's budget, the ballooning costs "can't continue," Caputo said. "We need a solution."
The fact that it's on the table for discussion is a good thing, he said.
Basic subsidies are the same as this fiscal year under Corbett's $29.4 billion budget plan. Shamokin Area is slated to receive $11,866,034; Southern Columbia, $4,378,580; Line Mountain, $5,999,529, and Mount Carmel Area, $7,847,249.
"I don't want to sound negative, but it's a little disappointing. An increase would have been helpful as opposed to being flat-lined," Caputo said. "It would have given us flexibility."
Southern's budget director had plugged in a 1.5 percent increase from the state, but will have to adjust, he said.
Special education spending statewide is up $20 million, a figure district Zack was "ecstatic" about.
"I see they're finally going to raise special education," Zack said, adding that the costs for special education have continually risen but said that state funds haven't moved with the trend.
Zack and Colangelo tempered any enthusiasm knowing the terms of the proposal could change, perhaps radically, by the time a state budget is adopted.
"Right now this sounds good but we all know there will be a lot changes from now to June," Colangelo said.
"Until it's approved it's hard to comprehend if it's good, bad or indifferent," Zack said.
Line Mountain Superintendent Dave Campbell said Tuesday afternoon he hadn't yet reviewed the budget and reserved comment. Mount Carmel Area Superintendent Bernard Stellar could not be reached for comment.
Local legislators approve
State Reps. Lynda Schlegel Culver (R-108) and Kurt Masser (R-107) said in a joint release Tuesday that they were both "impressed with the governor's effort to invest in our students."
They noted an increase in funding by $363 million to prekindergarten through 12th-grade education, which would bring total funding to $10.3 billion, the most state funding ever spent.
Culver was also pleased to see investment in higher education.
"Often times, middle-class families who are trying to make sure their kids are able to get to college don't qualify for tuition assistance programs," she was quoted in the statement. "This proposal includes $25 million in scholarships to distribute throughout the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency."
(Staff Writer Rob Wheary contributed to this report.)