Robert Inglis/The Daily Item The Mount Carmel Area School District.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Josh Shapiro championed $1 billion in new spending on public education in his first proposed budget as the commonwealth’s chief executive, and the projected estimates are welcomed by school district administrators eager for any additional funding.

But, the future of how the commonwealth funds and distributes dollars for K-12 education is unsettled after a state judge found the system unconstitutional, failing to equitably share resources to the detriment of the poorest schools.

Schools like those that make up the Greater Johnstown School District, one of the plaintiffs in the historic lawsuit. The district is projected to receive more than an additional $3 million in basic education subsidies and $316,000 in special education funding under the governor’s proposal — one sure to evolve as lawmakers work to settle on the state’s next spending plan ahead of a June 30 deadline.

Superintendent Amy Arcurio expressed gratitude for the prospects of a seven-figure boost next school year. And, she spoke of how quickly that funding could be spread thin.

Arcurio said Greater Johnstown spent millions from federal pandemic relief funding on infrastructure repairs, student technology purchases, mental health support and instructional support staff. More repairs are needed, computing devices will eventually need to be upgraded, and the students’ need for mental and instructional support isn’t waning. The funding dries up by September 2024, she said.

“Our students are still struggling despite all of the resources we were able to give them,” Arcurio said specifically of mental health and instructional aid.

“Once we exhaust those dollars and we go back to the school district budget, we’re no longer competitive. The money we can use to pay those folks (therapists, social workers), it drastically decreases. They can make a better wage doing the same work with a different institution that has the money to pay,” she said.

In his budget proposal, Shapiro calls for $567,365,000 in more basic education subsidies for all of Pennsylvania’s 500 public schools, a near 8% rise, in addition to the continued $225 million Level Up supplement for the state’s 100 poorest districts. That would raise the subsidies, schools’ main source of state funds, to $8.4 billion. An additional $104 million is sought to boost special education by nearly 8%.

The proposal includes $100 million each for remediating decrepit school buildings, hiring mental health counselors for each school and investing in school safety and security, an additional $17.3 million towards career and technical education along with a $38.5 million increase for universal free breakfast and expanded free lunch.

Shapiro appeared in Philadelphia on Wednesday to tout a proposed three-year, $2,500 annual tax incentive to build up the state’s workforce of teachers. The incentive would also apply to nurses and police officers. He spoke broadly about his budget plan, too.

He said this year’s budget is a first step toward finalizing a new, equitable formula for the state’s education funds.

“It won’t happen overnight. We would have to work on this over (the next) two budget cycles,” Shapiro said. “In our next budget, we’ll be coming back with a plan on how to increase that funding as well as making sure it’s driven out in an equitable fashion.”

Poorer districts rely on state

Pete Cheddar, superintendent of Mount Carmel Area School District in Northumberland County, said the district’s budget relies on state funds for about 70% of its expenses. As one of the poorer districts in the state — Mount Carmel Area is also a Level Up school — Cheddar said the district’s property tax base pales when compared to wealthier districts.

Special education costs are growing along with the redirect of education subsidies for local students choosing to attend charter schools, Cheddar said. The district’s special education population is 23% compared to a state average of about 18%.

Mount Carmel Area is proposed to receive more than $1 million in additional state funds, a combination of basic and special education subsidies.

“We simply don’t have the local revenue sources that other local school districts have so we rely more heavily on state funding,” Cheddar said.

Like Greater Johnstown, Ferndale Area School District, also in Cambria County, is among the 100 poorest districts that receive supplemental funding.

Ferndale’s superintendent, Jeff Boyer, said that while the district’s proposed increases for basic and special education subsidies — an estimated additional $575,000 and $93,000, respectively — is a good thing, it won’t go far.

“That’s more or less the cost of living adjustment for us,” Boyer said, citing rising costs for employee health insurance and scheduled wage increases, food service costs and building maintenance.

Solutions need to be found for funding, he said. Districts like Ferndale can’t rely on the local tax base that isn’t nearly as affluent as others. Earned income and sales taxes should be looked at, he said, as well as tax revenues from casinos and gaming and the funding structure for cyber schools.

“The property tax isn’t the answer,” Boyer said. “Districts like us where we don’t have many businesses, we’re just taxing people.”

Joe Ambrosini, business manager of the New Castle Area School District in Lawrence County, said both he and Superintendent Richard Rossi are encouraged by Shapiro’s proposal and commitment to public education.

The district is proposed to receive about $3.1 million combined in additional basic and special education subsidies under Shapiro’s proposal.

The Level Up funds the district receives helped buoy summer enrichment and after-school programs by enhancing pay for staff and growing enrollment, Ambrosini said.

Whatever additional funds New Castle Area ultimately receives, he said, a portion of it will be used to engage parents and guardians through workshops and related initiatives toward enhancing their involvement in their child’s education. The end goal would be to improve student behavior and academic outcomes.

“We have got to get parents more involved,” he said.

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