Centre County school districts cautiously optimistic about Gov. Wolf’s budget proposal

Fifth-grader Riley Cendana shows Gov. Tom Wolf his work on a computer during the tour. Pa. Governor Tom Wolf visited Wingate Elementary School in the Bald Eagle Area School District, Monday, March 9, 2015.
Fifth-grader Riley Cendana shows Gov. Tom Wolf his work on a computer during the tour. Pa. Governor Tom Wolf visited Wingate Elementary School in the Bald Eagle Area School District, Monday, March 9, 2015. CDT photo

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2015-16 state budget proposal includes millions of dollars more in education funding, of which some could come from a tax imposed on natural gas drilling.

Local school district officials said the public school system will benefit — as long as the governor sticks to his vow to boost education funding.

“The governor’s budget is a very positive sign for education, but it has a long way to go until a budget is approved,” said Ken Bean, director of fiscal affairs at the Bellefonte Area School District. “It is hard to say what the final outcome will be at this stage. Hopefully, the district will see some funding increases from the state when all is said and done. Obviously, any kind of increase would be welcome especially to assist in offsetting the PSERS (Public School Employees’ Retirement System) increase.”

Wolf wants to increase money for education by $2 billion in four years, from pre-K programs to college, through a severance tax and an additional fee of 4.7 cents per thousand feet of volume on natural gas extraction.

The proposal also includes an increase to school district funding by $400 million, or 7 percent, and special education funding by $100 million, or 9.6 percent, and use $120 million for prekindergarten programs.

Jef Wall, business manager for the Penns Valley Area School District, said the governor’s budget proposal is “quite different from the state budgets of recent years.”

“If the governor’s proposal is fully implemented, it will provide increased resources to local school districts to support educational programming,” Wall said.

The current state general education budget remained flat from the previous school year under former Gov. Tom Corbett.

During a visit to Wingate Elementary School in Boggs Township on Monday, Wolf said he wants to revamp how education is funded, by putting a focus on more state contributions instead of local property taxes.

“We really need to invest in education, and we need to figure out how to do that in a better way than we’ve done in the past,” Wolf told the CDT. “I have two issues that are especially important to me when you come to a place like this. One is the way we raise money for public education and the other is how we allocate it.”

In Penns Valley’s case, the increased state funding might eliminate the need for local tax increases in 2015-16, Wall said.

“At this time, Penns Valley intends to plan for state funding at current (2014-15) levels for the 2015-16 school year,” Wall said. “If the state legislature passes, and the governor signs, a funding bill prior to June 24 … we will re-evaluate the district’s budget and adjust accordingly.”

Bald Eagle and State College area school districts already have estimated figures coming back from state funding.

The governor’s proposed budget includes an increase in education funding for State College Area School District by about $750,000, said district business administrator Randy Brown.

“We are encouraged by the increases in funding for public education” that Wolf has proposed, Brown said.

Brown said the governor also proposed a property tax relief program beginning in the 2016-17 school year funded by an increase in the sales tax rate and eligible items and services, increase in the personal income tax rate, and a severance on the extraction of natural gas.

“Since the increased funding is related to substantial changes in taxation, which must be approved by both houses of government, we do not expect to make revisions to our budget proposal until evidence that these changes in taxation will be approved,” Brown added.

In the meantime, the additional revenue will be reflected as a potential surplus, “which would be appropriated in the future,” Brown said.

For Bald Eagle Area School District, that would mean going from the $725,000 cut in four years to a $484,606 increase in just one year. It will also provide the district with an allocation of $4.8 million in property tax relief.

“If he (Wolf) does what he says he’s going to do, then we’re going to be in good shape,” said Superintendent Jeff Miles.