State good at passing the buck...not as good at passing the bucks
By Steven Hoffman
Over the next few weeks, school districts will be finalizing their budgets for the 2017-2018 school year. All four of the school districts that serve students in Southern Chester County are expected to raise taxes by between one-percent and nearly three-percent in order to balance their budgets, placing an even greater financial burden on local property owners.
One big reason that the school districts have been seeing year-to-year increases in their budgets are the skyrocketing pension costs for employees. It was a vote by the Pennsylvania State Legislature more than 15 years ago that boosted the pensions for lawmakers, judges, and state employees, including public school employees. That act by the State Legislature directly set the stage for the kind of year-to-year budget deficits that many school districts across Pennsylvania now face each year. Many of these school districts are raising taxes to pay for the rising pension costs, not to add teachers, increase technology, or spend more money on programs that would actually boost academic achievement.
At one time not that long ago, the state would provide funding that amounted to about half of the overall budget for Pennsylvania school districts. But through the years, the percentage of the state's share of overall education costs plummeted to around one-third—school districts consequently relied more heavily on local sources for its funding.
Under Gov. Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania increased its funding for public education, and the percentage of the state's share slowly moved in the right direction, back toward 50 percent. More recently, with the costs of providing public education to students climbing, state subsidies haven't kept pace and school districts are relying more heavily on local sources.
The state is facing its own significant budget deficit. Pension costs are soaring, and the pension system remains under-funded. The State Legislature has failed to take action that would adequately address the pension crisis. Lawmakers seem content to allow the school boards to pass the tax increases without doing anything to help school districts address their long-term fiscal needs.
In southern Chester County, we're fortunate that the school districts haven't needed to move forward with any major renovation or construction projects in the last five years when budgets have been so tight. Student enrollments have also stabilized. That won't always be the case.
At some point, the State Legislature needs to fix the pension problems and develop a more fair and adequate way to fund public schools.