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School districts want their subsidies

One week before their state-set budget deadline, a group of school directors frustrated with the absence of state subsidies has asked Harrisburg, in the future, to begin fixing those funding numbers at least 60 days before school boards must adopt their spending plans.

It is now 90 days past that point, and those numbers still are not set.

“We had a responsibility to pass our budget by the end of June, and here we are almost in October with no subsidy,” said Superintendent Dr. Donald Tylinski, of Mt. Pleasant Area School District. “The fact is, we need the subsidy to run the school district. That’s a promise from the state.”

At next month’s meeting, Tylinski said, the Mt. Pleasant Area School Board may be looking at a six-point resolution developed June 23 by Belle Vernon Area’s board.

That night, one week before the June 30 budget deadline, board President Aaron Bialon read the protest-toned resolution aloud. The first of his six points had to do with the lack of state subsidies, which on average make up 35 percent of the revenue base for the state’s 501 school districts.

At the time Bialon presented the resolution, Belle Vernon Area had penciled into its $25.2 million spending plan more than $7 million in projected state subsidies.

The amount was roughly what the district received in its 2002-03 fiscal year. For 2003-04, it was virtually imaginary money.

Bialon said the state should begin providing fixed subsidy numbers at least 60 days before school districts are required to pass their budgets.

The resolution also asks the state to:

  • Fully fund those new or expanded programs that are in place because of a state mandate.

  • Provide any additional funding needed to fulfill state-mandated increases in school retirement plans.

  • Increase the state subsidy to at least 50 percent.

  • Provide districts with taxing capabilities to replace the “antiquated” real-estate tax system.

  • Provide funds and grants to lessen the financial blow of rising health care costs.

    Bialon’s board adopted the resolution by a unanimous vote.

    Then the document was circulated among the other 16 Westmoreland County school districts through the county’s Intermediate Unit.

    Some boards have adopted it. Some have made similar resolutions of their own. Nearly all school officials, though, have expressed their annoyance with lawmakers as the state continues to work on its education budget.

    Until the General Assembly and Gov. Ed Rendell agree on a plan, state subsidies will not be released to the districts.

    “This budget difficulty is affecting all of the districts in Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Pamela Pulkowski, superintendent of the Franklin Regional School District.

    Her school board didn’t adopt Belle Vernon Area’s resolution. It previously had come up with one of its own, calling for many of same points. That document was mailed to Rendell and a handful of legislators.

    Superintendent Thomas Yarabinetz, of the Greensburg Salem School District, said his district has taken its own stance against the state, too.

    “We’ve written the governor. We’ve written the House Appropriations Committee,” Yarabinetz said. “It’s placing a real burden on districts. We will probably be running out of money sometime by the end of October, if the budget doesn’t pass and we don’t get our subsidies.”

    Inspired by the Belle Vernon Area resolution, the Greater Latrobe School Board adopted a similar one, board Secretary Constance Lazur said.

    “We changed a little bit of the wording,” she said. While she spoke about the document, she said she was preparing to send it to 18 state legislators.

    Tim Allwein, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s assistant executive director for government and member relations, said school districts throughout the state have vented their financial frustration.

    “It’s run the range of resolutions to outright public statements to letters to legislators,” he said.

    Not having a budget isn’t the only thing frustrating, Allwein said.

    “I think to a lot of people it appears that folks aren’t trying real hard to get one,” he said.

    Most districts, for now, are surviving. But some are clearly worried.

    Jeannette School District, for example, has said it could shut down by November if subsidies don’t arrive soon.

    “Come the end of October, we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to keep operating,” business manager Brett Lago said.

    The first subsidy payment would have arrived in August.

    In Belle Vernon Area, it likely would have put $1.2 million in the district’s coffers.

    The district still will get the money, but for now cash flow is slowing down. Superintendent Robert Nagy said it’s tough to predict exactly when the flow will stop.

    “At some point, and who knows when, I don’t even want to think about it,” he said. “No superintendent ever wants to think about closing a school. It’d be a real tragedy for the commonwealth.”

    Not only is the lack of subsidies restricting cash flow, but it is erasing already-penciled investment income, said Hempfield Area School District’s business manager, John Schuck.

    Hempfield Area’s August subsidy payment would have been worth $2 million, he said. A lot of that money would have sat in the bank, generating income.

    Schuck calculated that the district is losing $55 a day, money that was accounted for in its $65.5 million budget.

    “We’re going to be OK for a while,” Schuck said. “But naturally we won’t if state subsidies don’t come through.”


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