Charles Ballard, school board president with East Penn School District and an assistant regional director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, told members of the House Democratic Policy Committee that adequate basic and special education funding must be a priority in the 2013-14 state budget and unfunded mandates must be reduced or eliminated.
In his testimony, Ballard demonstrated how Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed increase of $90 million to basic education funding does not go far in his home district. If the increase is approved, that would likely mean East Penn would receive $306,000 more than last year, a 3 percent increase. However, East Penn is anticipating an increase of $2.1 million in pension payments -- only half of which are reimbursed by the state. This leaves his district nearly $1 million short.
In addition, his district must keep up with the cost of funding charter schools. This year, East Penn has had to contribute $3.5 million to fund charter schools, an increase of $500,000 from last year. This unfair funding formula includes the district paying pension costs to the charter schools even though the state reimburses charters for these costs. This "double dipping" results in charters being paid twice - once from the district and once from the state.
Ballard also expressed concern with Gov. Corbett's sixth year of level funding for special education, despite the fact that costs keep rising. In East Penn, special education costs have gone from $5 million a year in 2001-02 to more than $13 million in 2009-10.
To complicate matters of reduced funding, Ballard said the "constant stream of unfunded mandates" further adds strain to school district budgets.
"Every time someone has a 'good idea' in the Legislature to deal with some situation that has come up, we get a new mandate," Ballard said. "If it is important enough for you to mandate that we do it, it should be important enough to mandate that you pay for it."
Examples of the mandate burden districts face are transporting nonpublic and charter school students to locations within 10 miles outside a district's boundary and filing unnecessary reports, such as athletic expenditures, to the state Department of Education. Any new mandates "will result in damage to our main mission - the education of our children for the world they will face in the future," said Ballard.
Additionally, if Congress cannot agree on a package of spending cuts and tax reforms the nation could face automatic cuts totaling $85 billion, also referred to as "sequestration" on March 1. For every $1 billion in federal funding a school receives, it would see a reduction of approximately $51,000.
Ballard said East Penn, one of the wealthier districts in the state, has followed many strategies to balance its budgets in the face of decreasing state support, including negotiating two years of pay freezes; not replacing all teachers, administrators or staff who have left or retired; cutting back plans to replace aging technology, staff development, textbooks, and infrastructure components; and delaying the development of new programs.
When you consider all the budget pressures on school districts, including pension, flat-funding of special education, possible sequestration, unfunded mandates, and the need for charter school funding reform, the governor's proposed 1.7 percent increase in basic education funding does little to move us forward and "will only cause the commonwealth to fall further behind on its obligation to provide an acceptable level of state funding for public education," he said. "Without meaningful solutions, school districts will continue to cut valuable educational programs and yet still have to turn to their local taxpayers to shoulder additional financial burdens."