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Cash for Connections: How some school districts are cashing-in on their local lawmakers’ clout

Posted 07.2.2018

Since the early enactment of the 2018-19 state budget on June 22, there has been plenty of news coverage on the big-ticket items secured for education – – $100 million more for basic education, $15 million more for special education and an additional $30 million for career and technical education. But what you may not know is that a handful of school districts will receive extra money from the state coffers this year…to the tune of $18 million (no strings attached).

Let that sink in…the Legislature and the Governor allocated more money this year to an unrestricted account, only accessible to a select few school districts than they added to special education. And this is not the first year the state has given out bonuses to certain districts.

So, who are the lucky recipients of these discretionary funds and what makes them more deserving of taxpayer resources than any other school district?

It’s hard to say, because (unlike the transparency guaranteed when funding formulas or competitive grant programs are used to distribute subsidies) these additional funds are handed out at the discretion of the PA Department of Education, with no accountability measures attached.

In years past, these funds were appropriated through the Educational Access Programs line item and the Department used them to give an extra boost to districts in Financial Watch or Recovery status. The Erie City School District and their state senator were not shy about celebrating the additional $14 million received by the district in last year’s budget to address their financial woes (an amount they will continue to receive every year in their Basic Education Funding subsidy as part of PA’s hold harmless provision). But most school districts don’t like to advertise their windfalls.

This year the Legislature zeroed out the Educational Access Programs line item (which last year contained $23.1 million) and added $18 million to the Ready to Learn Block Grant line item; allowing the Department to make discretionary hand-outs to any school district, not just those in Financial Watch or Recovery. This was an important change for the two districts we know received the extra funding in the 2018-19 budget.

The changes in the Educational Access Programs and Ready to Learn Block Grant appropriations can be seen in this spreadsheet from the Governor’s Budget Office.

Which leads to the second part of the question…what entitles certain school districts to this extra pot of cash? At a time when resources are scarce, the majority of PA’s 500 school districts are doing all they can to pinch pennies and/or choosing to raise property taxes to address financial hardships. So why do a select few get additional state funds when the majority do not? Well, as is true in so many situations…it’s all who you know at the Capitol and how much influence those folks have in the budget process.

As we mentioned earlier, historically districts and their legislative benefactors have wanted to keep these extra appropriations hush-hush to avoid any appearance that favoritism or bias was playing a role in the state budgeting process. However, it seems this year lawmakers are celebrating their ability to secure these no-strings-attached funds for their local schools.

For instance, the lawmakers representing the Allentown School District took credit for securing an extra $10 million to offset the district’s budget deficit in a recent article from The Morning Call. As the article describes, Sen. Pat Browne (Majority Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee) and Reps. Peter Schweyer and Mike Schlossberg lobbied to secure the $10 million “with no strings attached, meaning the state is not forcing the Allentown School District to go into financial recovery” because they “are confident in the leadership” of the district’s ability get their fiscal house in order.

And then there’s the Upper Darby School District which was another winner in this year’s round of no-strings-attached budget handouts. According to Kathleen Carey’s report for the Delaware County Daily Times (How new Pa. budget boosts education funding), the district received $3.5 million due to the lobbying efforts of the Sen. Tom McGarrigle and Rep. Jamie Santora, who say they will seek additional funds again next year in an attempt to prevent a property tax hike (something every property owner in PA would enjoy as well).

In every enacted state budget there are winners and losers – – with limited resources the General Assembly and the Governor play a tug-of-war to get their priorities funded. But when the General Assembly or the Governor cherry-pick a few well-connected school districts to receive extra money in the budget, with no accountability measures tied to those funds, we all lose.

In the case of the Allentown School District, the state should have required the district to implement interventions to improve educational outcomes for students as a condition of receiving the $10 million. Instead, the district will continue down its path of fiscal mismanagement while their students remain stranded in failing schools:

Note: The district blames their budget woes on the high cost of charter tuition but can you blame parents for fleeing the district for better educational options (the two charter high schools, Lincoln Leadership Academy and Roberto Clemente, have graduation rates of 100 and 87.2 respectively.)

We are calling on lawmakers and the Governor to end the practice of dumping state appropriations into discretionary accounts (that offer the public no transparency) and padding a select few school districts’ bank accounts with no-strings-attached funds. If the state would like to direct additional resources to specific districts, it should be done through competitive grants or school turnaround efforts that improve academic outcomes for students stranded in failing schools.

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