Delaware County school administrators say they are encouraged by Gov. Tom Wolf’s plans to increase funding for the state’s public school system.
In his budget address last Wednesday, Gov. Wolf called for all existing education funding to be put through the fair funding formula, which takes into account factors such as student needs and enrollment. His $1.3 billion proposal includes increases in funding for special education and pre-k programs.
The majority of the funding would be achieved through an increase in the personal income tax rate that would also provide relief for low-income and working class families.
Lee Ann Wentzel, superintendent of Ridley School District, said she can’t get too enthusiastic since the final budget might not include everything Gov. Wolf has proposed. But she is still impressed with the ambitious nature of the proposal.
“I think his proposal is a genuine attempt to address equity across the commonwealth,” Wentzel said.
George Steinhoff, superintendent of Penn-Delco School District, said Pennsylvania has consistently ranked near the bottom of the country in state funding of local school districts, with only 11% of state funds going through the fair funding formula. He said he feels that Wolf’s proposals help to alleviate the burden that comes with increasing costs for maintaining public schools.
“This is at last a budget that makes real strides in fixing the public school funding deficiencies and does so by not passing the buck onto local taxpayers,” Steinhoff said.
Reforms to the Charter School Law have been a top priority among local district leaders. Gov. Wolf has proposed the state apply the same special education formula to charter schools that it does to all other public schools. He also called for establishing a statewide cyber charter school tuition rate of $9,500 per student.
“That law really needs to be revisited, because there are definitely financial gains to be made,” said Wentzel, who added that funding for cyber charter schools can cut into the district’s budget.
Steinhoff mentioned that districts have been forced to deal with the burdens that cyber charter schools have imposed upon them due to ever-increasing tuition costs. Addressing those issues, to him, is “long overdue and frankly just common sense.”
Donald Mooney, executive director of operations and business administrator for Penn-Delco, mentioned the funds recovered from those reforms will help districts pay for other much-needed resources.
“The funding included in the proposed budget will provide additional funds districts can use for COVID PPE and capital asset upgrades for environmental air quality,” he said in an email.
Yet while administrators praised the budget’s efforts to provide greater equitability across the board, they also pointed out that wealthier districts will still benefit from substantial funding increases.
“I appreciate that the governor is recommending a significant increase,” said Lisa Palmer, superintendent of Wallingford-Swarthmore School District. “However, the school districts that have been receiving a disproportionate share of the subsidy will still continue receiving it.”
Palmer said she also hopes that along with addressing those inequities, the state eventually will look to direct more funds towards PlanCon, which covers construction and renovation projects in school districts. While her district hasn’t been affected by the state’s moratorium on funding for those projects, she noted “it does impact many school districts, and it will impact us in the future.”
Nevertheless, administrators are eager to see how the budget process will pan out.
“What the final budget ultimately looks like, after it works its way through the sausage factory of legislative reworking, only time will tell,” Steinhoff said. “One has to stay hopeful.”