The state of Pennsylvania has ensured funding for rural school districts has remained consistent, in spite of declining enrollment in rural areas.
The "hold harmless" provision has ensured an automatic two percent increase in the basic education subsidy for every year but this year.
What happens if the safety net goes away?
"We would lose millions of dollars in revenue," Warren County School District Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel told the school board on Monday night.
But from the perspective of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, that protection might be under attack.
State Rep. Kathy Rapp, addressing the Warren County Council of Governments last Wednesday night, expressed a concern that declining population could eventually eat away at that funding.
Noting that when she graduated from Warren Area High School her graduating class was around 500 students, Rapp said that "now there's about 300 countywide."
"I have a big concern about that because talking about the budget for education, hold harmless, the growing school districts, they're looking at the money the rural counties are receiving," Rapp said. She told the COG that fast-growing districts, "have the economic base and the tax base (are) basically saying 'we want that. You don't deserve that (funding because) you don't have the children.'"
And those arguments have made it to the halls of the General Assembly in Harrisburg.
"We've already battled it," Rapp said. "Mostly in caucus and not in public, but I think that is coming...We need to find young families that want to have children again."
Responding to Rapp's comments, board member John Grant indicated that the "hold harmless" provision "does not have the political support it used to have," noting that changes to the law in this realm "might affect us greatly.
"In the past, even though we had had a declining enrollment, we have enjoyed an average of two percent per year increase," he added. "(It's) something that we need to keep our eye on and be sensitive to" and it dictates "how we pay for our Warren County schools."
Hufnagel explained that it would take an act of the General Assembly to change the law; however, he noted, "This is a hit we can't afford to take nor can any other small rural school across the Commonwealth. That law was put there for a reason and it needs to stay."
To illustrate the benefit of the hold harmless provision, the district's basic education subsidy from the state of Pennsylvania is up over $10 million since the 2000-2001 school year.
The two-percent automatic increase currently sits at approximately $500,000. The basic education subsidy for the WCSD for the 2012-12013 school year is $29,959,625, up $6 million from the previous year and up $4 million from the 2010-2011 year. The subsidy was $18,738,280 for the 2000-2001 year, according to copies of the final budget for the respective fiscal years available at wcsdpa.org.
"Hold harmless is very important," Hufnagel said. "The difference being one of the reasons they do that..it keeps at least one of the funding sources level" in the face of declining population and a corresponding shrink in the tax base. He added that the organization Pennsylvania Rural Schools will likely be making this issue a focus of its advocacy efforts during the upcoming legislative session.
Grant said that he interprets Rapp's comments as a "shot across our bow. I really do believe we're going to be spending more time on this than what we may have anticipated in the past."