Sustainability of budget proposal question
Gov. Josh Shapiro’s state budget is heavy on additional education expenditures that would greatly benefit local K-12 public schools, as well as the county’s two postsecondary institutions — but one superintendent questions the sustainability of the increases.
Should the proposed budget be approved by the General Assembly, school districts in Pennsylvania would see a $103.8 million increase in special education funding, $38.5 million to continue universal free breakfast for all students, $100 million in safety and security grants, and $100 million to reduce and remediate environmental hazards in schools.
Higher education institutions would share an increase in funding of more than $60 million.
Brian White, superintendent at the Butler Area School District, said the budget definitely contains more funding for education than is typical.
“But is it sustainable or is this a one-time increase?” White said. “It would be very helpful, but our challenge is ongoing expenses. Having staff costs money.”
He said he is happy to see the importance Shapiro places on public education, and that some burden will be removed from local taxpayers.
But White worries that the funds will come with additional mandates that might not be funded in future years.
“At this point, we’re trying to learn the details beyond the numbers,” he said.
Regarding the special education increase, White said the U.S. Department of Education funded special education at 50% when the program was created.
Now, state and federal funding combined only fund 25% of the program’s requirements.
“Special education is 25% to 30% of our budget,” White said. “Once again, is it one-time or sustainable?”
He also questions the massive increase in career and technical education reimbursement in Shapiro’s proposed budget, which would rise from the current $20,000 to $30,000 to $399,000 next year.
“That’s one of the areas we are seeking clarity on,” White said.
The additional security and safety funds, which would be disbursed through Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) grants, would be helpful at Butler Area, which has a priority list of safety and security items, and a list of identified strengths and weaknesses.
Regarding the free breakfast program included in the proposed budget, White said a few of the district’s elementary schools already qualify for free breakfasts for all students under federal guidelines.
“That wasn’t new in our district,” he said.
David Foley, Knoch superintendent, said he hopes the free breakfast section of the budget is approved.
“It would held families throughout the district,” he said.
Foley said additional school police and other security features could be added at Knoch through the PCCD grants touted by Shapiro.
He said money also exists in the budget for building upgrades like roof repairs and electrical and HVAC improvements, which are needed at Knoch.
Foley also appreciates the $2,500 tax credit Shapiro is proposing for school nurses, teachers and other staff.
Eric Ritzert, superintendent at Karns City Area School District, especially liked the tax breaks included for teachers and first responders included in Shapiro’s budget.
“It could definitely attract some new people into those fields,” he said.
Ritzert is saving his unbridled enthusiasm for the state budget until it is voted upon by the state legislature.
But he hopes school district funding increases, because it would help prevent a millage increase for district property owners.
He said the special education funding, while generous, still will not sufficiently fund the department, as the cost for student needs are increasing faster than allocations from the state.
“That funding stream is falling short,” Ritzert said.
About 6% of the Karns City budget is spent on special education costs, he said.
The PCCD funding, Ritzert said, would be very helpful for Karns City as district officials continue to look for ways to enhance video surveillance, create a sign-in/sign-out procedure at schools and upgrade doors to improve safety.
“Those types of things are costly, but the funding does help us in those areas,” he said.
Regarding free breakfasts, Ritzert said Karns City began offering free breakfast at all schools even before the coronavirus pandemic.
“We saw a slight increase in attendance and a reduction in problem behaviors throughout the school day, so we saw some non-monetary benefits to taking that on,” he said.
Regarding the funding in the budget for higher education, Nick Neupauer, president at Butler County Community College, said the college would receive an estimated 1.86% increase and slightly more than $9 million in operating funds in the proposed budget.
He said the budget also includes a three-year tax credit of up to $2,500 per year for individuals newly certified in professions that include nursing.
BC3 offers a two-year registered nursing degree and a one-year practical nursing degree.
“Students in BC3’s career programs, such as registered nursing, and in its certificate programs, such as practical nursing, can develop the skills needed to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation,” Neupauer said.
He said BC3 offers 34 career programs and 23 certificate or workplace certificate programs, in addition to 21 transfer programs.
“BC3 retrains, upskills and educates students for in-demand, family-sustaining careers in the state,” Neupauer said. “We’re pleased that the governor proposes to support us in training the next generation of BC3 students for the workforce — an area in which we have excelled for decades.”
He added that investing in community colleges is one of the best investments that can be made at the state level.
“(It) provides a significant return on investment for taxpayers,” Neupauer said.
Carrie Birckbichler, vice president for finance and administration at Slippery Rock University, said Shapiro’s proposed increase in higher education funding would help the university balance its budget.
“We are grateful for Gov. Shapiro’s efforts to support the state system, including Slippery Rock University,” she said.
The funding could also help keep tuition down for students and families who choose SRU, Birckbichler said.
She said she hopes Shapiro maintains his dedication to higher education throughout his term as governor.
“You have to keep in mind that 60% of jobs in the future will require some type of higher education, and currently, only 51% of the workforce meets that criteria,” Birckbichler said.