The state’s 500 school districts have been operating without state funding since July because of the budget impasse in Harrisburg, and a growing number of districts — including Philadelphia — had said that their coffers were so close to empty that they would be forced to close schools in the weeks after winter break. Others have said that they would take out loans to continue operating.
Mark Ferrara, the school superintendent in the Greenville area, a small, rural district in northwest Pennsylvania, said he had to borrow $4.2 million in late December to make payroll over the holidays. The money will carry the district until March, he said. But taking out the loan will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000, he said, “money we should be putting into education for kids and buying supplies and computers and sending kids on field trips.”
Ferrara said he hadn’t received any specifics about the emergency payments announced Tuesday. “But it’s encouraging,” he said.
A spokesman for Wolf did not give a date for the release of the funds, saying the money would be disbursed “as quickly as possible.” James Walsh, the superintendent in the Pittsburgh suburb of Burgettstown, said his district will have to borrow money to stay open if emergency payments aren’t received by Jan. 4.
“The real emergency is the lack of a state budget six months into the fiscal year,” Walsh wrote in an e-mail. “This is critically important to resolve as soon as possible. We are expected to produce a preliminary budget for 2016-17 this month. I have no idea how to proceed with out any idea of this year’s numbers.”
Many public education advocates were thrilled when Wolf was elected after promising to close the state’s yawning budget deficit and invest an additional $1 billion in public education. But his plan depended on changes to the tax code — including a new tax on gas production and increases in personal income and sales taxes — that were never popular with Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the legislature.
The budget fight, which has dominated Wolf’s first year in office, had appeared close to resolution in November when he reached a deal with Republican leaders that included a compromise over public pensions. But the deal fell apart last week in a series of twists and turns (summarized well by the Allentown Morning Call). Both chambers passed a $30.3 billion budget bill that Wolf called unacceptable, saying it amounts to a $95 million cut to education and fails to specify how certain items would be paid for.
On Tuesday, he accused Republican lawmakers of shirking their jobs in order to get home for Christmas: “They ran off – pretty quickly at that – before they finished their job. And they left us with a real holiday mess,” Wolf said.
Republicans lobbed their own recriminations, pointing out that in September, Wolf vetoed a GOP bill that would have allowed stopgap funding to flow to schools and social services agencies while lawmakers continued their debate over the broader budget. At the time, Wolf argued that lawmakers had a responsibility to reach an agreement on a full budget package, but Republican leaders said he was holding schools hostage in an effort to force his tax hikes through the legislature.
Ferrara, the Greenville superintendent, said he supports the governor’s effort to raise taxes and public education spending. “The governor is doing what he said he was going to do, and that’s not a surprise to anybody,” he said. “We’ve waited this long. We want to wait for a good budget.”