Centre County school officials await final word on state budget

bmilazzo@centredaily.comJuly 1, 2014 

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    Proposed state funding for local school districts:

    Bald Eagle Area: Budget-$29.05 million. State funding-$7.85 million.

    Bellefonte Area: Budget-$46.19 million. State funding-$7.95 million.

    Penns Valley Area: Budget-$24.81 million. State funding-$4.89 million.

    Philipsburg-Osceola Area: Budget-$29.31 million. State funding-$11.26 million.

    State College: Budget-$126.79 million. State funding-$6.44 million.

    Budget notes:

    • The governor’s budget includes $1.05 billionfor special education — up from $1.03 billion in 2013-14.

    • The Ready to Learn Block Grant would include $241 million in Ready to Learn funding for public schools that focus on student achievement and academic success. That money would help support schools where students prove to be reading and math-ready by third grade, and help allow additional training to teachers to support early literacy STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and other customized student needs.

    An additional $100 million also would help fund the accountability block grant, which supports pre-K, full-day kindergarten and other educational programs.

Penns Valley Area School District could find itself in a pinch if the state doesn’t approve money the district already put in its budget.

And other county school districts are finding ways to offset a proposed state budget that doesn’t put much money back in their pockets.

At best, the districts would receive flat state funding while they increase their annual budgets. School districts have decided to raise taxes and some are leaving positions unfilled.

“That’s just reality,” said Bald Eagle Area Superintendent Jeff Miles.

The state budget deadline was Monday, but on Tuesday the plan was still without a signature from Gov. Tom Corbett. School district officials weren’t all that surprised.

“This is nothing new,” said Ken Bean, Bellefonte Area director of fiscal affairs. “One year we had to wait until December. Another year, it was signed in August.”

The state proposed a basic education budget that includes $5.5 billion for 2014-15 — the same as last year, when the budget saw a $122.5 million, or 2.27 percent, increase from 2012-13.

However, additional state funds have been set aside for programs like special education, prekindergarten and the Ready to Learn Block Grant.

“Any increase helps — we haven’t seen increase in special education in over eight years — but it’s not adequate enough,” said Brian Griffith, Penns Valley Area superintendent. It’s not where it should be, he said.

Higher education

Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, released a statement that said general funding for Penn State would stay around $214 million, while funding for Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport would be increased by $2 million.

“At a time when many families have had to trim their own budgets, we are continuing to make investments in higher education,” Benninghoff said.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said she could not comment on the state budget until it is finalized.

Penn College President Davie Jane Gilmour said the school is grateful to the board of directors and Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, for “his tenacity and leadership in securing the additional funding.”

The college has a 2014-15 operating budget of $107.56 million — a 3.07 percent increase from 2013-14, Gilmour said.

“The budget process is not complete, but we are hopeful it will come to a positive conclusion in the near future,” Gilmour said.

Public schools

School officials at the primary and secondary levels said they have worked with local political officials to be the spokespeople for their school.

But talks only go so far, Griffith said.

“We spoke with some leaders to make changes in funding, but legislatures have backed away,” Griffith said.

Griffith said the Penns Valley board passed a $24.8 million budget that includes about $175,000 in Ready to Learn grant money.

If that amount is not authorized by the state, then the school district “would have a deficit budget,” Griffith said.

“We would then need to tap into a reserve fund,” he said.

Residents with property assessed at $43,085 will pay $77.04 more annually — about 2 percent more than last year. There was no tax increase in the 2013-14 school year, Griffith added.

He doesn’t expect to make any job or program cuts, but may not fill a kindergarten teaching or a para-educator position that would save the district about $100,000 a year.

Since 2011-12, the district has reduced its staff by about 13 percent, losing about 10 professional staff and 20 support personnel in a district that serves about 1,450 students, Griffith said.

Bald Eagle and Bellefonte area school district officials said they each passed a budget last month that did its best to predict what the state would do.

“This is not the fist time this has happened,” said John Gribble, Bald Eagle Area business manager. “We do the best we can with our budget and try to determine in advance what state subsidies we can get.”

BEA residents can expect taxes to increase by $30.15 for a home assessed at $30,151.02. The annual bill would go from $1,524.13 to $1,554.28. That’s to help fund a $29.1 million 2014-15 budget — a $1.2 million increase from last year.

“I think overall in the scheme of things, we’ve done a nice job keeping tabs on financials,” Miles said.

No programs have been cut, but the district might not fill two positions of retiring staff. That would save the district about $90,000, Gribble said.

Bellefonte Area passed a $46.19 million budget June 10, and raised taxes by 1 percent, Bean said.

Philipsburg-Osceola Area Superintendent Gregg Paladina said he still needed time to review the proposed state budget before making a comment, and State College Area Superintendent Bob O’Donnell and business manager Randy Brown were unavailable for comment.

Pre-K

According to the state Budget and Policy Center, the Early Intervention program for children age 3 to 5 has received regular funding increases. Its total budget this year is $237.5 million.

The budget adds $10 million to the Pre-K Counts program, which provides early-learning services to children in school- and community-based programs free to eligible families, said Ann Walker, executive administrator at The Child Development Family Council in Centre County.

“This is a positive thing. I think we’ve fared well,” Walker said. “This investment has the biggest bang for the buck. Pre-K changes (the) landscape for those getting into kindergarten.”

The Child Development Family Council holds Pre-K programs at the Philipsburg Child Development Center and the Discovery Child Development Center in State College. The program has about 38 registered students so far, ages 3 and 4, Walker said.

Penn State and Cen-Clear Child Services in Philipsburg hold other preschool programs in Centre County.

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @ M11azzo.

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