State funding bill could have ‘huge impact’ for WCSD

A group of Democratic state legislators have expressed an intention to introduce legislation to alter the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission that dictates the state funding that school districts across the state receive.

And the proposal identifies a $1.25 million increase for the Warren County School District.

It’s important to note that the proposal is just that – a proposal. With a split legislature – the House is controlled narrowly by Democrats while the GOP holds the majority in the Senate – there’s no guarantee the funds will come to fruition.

“We don’t know what we’re going to get,” WCSD Superintendent Gary Weber said. “It could be less than what they said (or) more than what they said.”

If it all came through? Weber said that scenario would have a “huge impact” on what has otherwise been a dismal 2024-2025 budget dialogue.

About a dozen House Democrats are sponsoring the funding bill, including Speaker Joanna McClinton and Erie Co. Rep. Ryan Bizzarro. A legislative memo outlining the proposal was released Tuesday afternoon.

“Pennsylvania’s public education funding system is unconstitutional. It is our constitutional duty to fix it,” the memo states.

The state Commonwealth Court ruled the current funding formula unconstitutional last year. In the wake of that decision, a Basic Education Funding Commission was assembled and gathered feedback on the issue, ultimately issuing a majority and minority report.

The Commission was made up of state legislators from both sides of the aisle and representation from the Shapiro administration.

“Unfortunately, as the Court ruling summarized, Pennsylvania’s overreliance on local property taxes results in low-wealth school districts never being able to provide adequate funding for staffing, courses, curricula, and facilities,” the memo states. “The state must step up and provide adequate funding in a way that makes Pennsylvania’s constitutional promise a reality for all students.”

As of Thursday afternoon, no legislative text has been released.

But the memo states that the legislation reflects the recommendations in the majority report and also relies on Gov. Shapiro’s proposal for an additional $1.1 billion increase in basic education funding.

The legislators say the bill will have three major components.

The first is a provision to take $200 million of that $1.1 billion to be “distributed through the fair funding formula benefiting all 500 school districts.”

The second major piece is defined as an “adequacy gap.”

“Statewide, the state is responsible for a $5.1 billion adequacy gap across 371 school districts,” the memo states. “Closing this gap over a 7-year period requires a $735 million adequacy investment each year.”

The WCSD’s share of that adequacy gap is about $5.5 million, according to an attachment from the memo.

The third piece would provide “tax equity payments” for districts with the highest tax burdens. The WCSD is not eligible for funding here, per that attachment.

Projected figures in the memo identify the WCSDs basic education funding for 2024-2025 at $28.8 million. An additional $456,000 would come from the fair funding formula increase while an additional $790,298 is proposed under the equity category.

That would increase the district’s basic education funding by $1.246 million.

“Finally, this legislation will include cyber charter school funding reforms that will provide several hundred million dollars in savings to school districts,” the memo states.

Weber highlighted the degree to which that reform could benefit the WCSD.

“The problem with cyber-charters,” he said, is that they have no brick-and-mortar and administrative overhead.

Weber said the district currently pays $13,000 for regular education and $28,000 for special education students from the district that attend these entities.

“Before COVID we were down roughly 90 kids in outside cyber,” he explained. “We’re now up to 153.”

That increase, he estimated, costs the district somewhere between $819,000 and $1.7 million.

And he cited data that shows the surpluses charter schools carry total well over $150 million.

He said those entities are “not even close” to spending all the money they receive. “They’re stockpiling money.”

“Our cyber budget has blown up again,” he said, now, with Tidioute Community Charter School included, up to $7 million.

Weber said the proposal would cap the amount the district pay to outside cyber entities at $8,000 per student, which he called a “significant reduction.”

Between the basic education funding increase and cyber charter reform, how much would an extra $2.5 million or $3 million improve the district’s budget picture?

“I think we’ve got it down to a pretty manageable (deficit) with that $3 million and being fiscally responsible going forward,” Weber said. “I think we can balance the budget on an annual basis (or get) pretty close.”

He explained that the additional state funding would reduce the amount the district has to take from committed fund balance to balance the budget.

“People don’t see the expansion of committed usage,” Weber said. “It becomes exponential.”

Funding a shortfall with $2 million in committed funds this year requires funding that $2 million with committed in future years and that’s without considering future deficits that might need covered by committed funds.

Budget dialogue will continue with the school board at committee meetings on May 20.


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