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Fund-amental balancing acts

Tri-State schools blend state and local funds each budget year

Tri-State schools blend state and local funds each budget year

July 29, 2002|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have set up three very different systems to pay for public education and none of them is perfect.

In West Virginia, where the state assumes a larger share of the burden, local school officials complain they have less control over education decisions.

But in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where the state's portion has been dwindling over the last decade, they're grappling with issues of adequacy and equity.

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All three states are constantly trying to strike a balance between fairness and control.

In Jefferson County, W.Va., the state pays about 59 percent of the school system's operating budget and nearly all of the rest is raised through local property taxes, said county Treasurer Nancy White.

The situation is similar in Morgan County, W.Va., where about 56 percent of the revenue comes from the state, said county Treasurer Jody Lucas.

The proportion of state versus local money has changed little over the years because of formulas prescribed by the state legislature.

But with that money comes control.

"We are very state-oriented. Many of the decisions are made in Charleston," White said.

When the state and federal governments give money to local school systems, it often comes with strings attached, said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. Those strings may require the schools to add curriculum or staff that administrators deem unnecessary or low priority, he said.

That can lead to higher taxes and less accountability, he said.

"Ideally, the situation to avoid is a system getting put on auto pilot," he said.

When money decisions are made locally, school systems are compelled to examine their priorities a little more closely, he said.

There's a flip side to that coin and it concerns equity, said P. Duff Rearick, superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District.

"There's a real disparity in this state. Pennsylvania has a real issue and if they don't solve it we're going to end up with a third-class state," he said.

Pennsylvania's 501 school districts are largely dependent on local property taxes, which means more affluent districts have more money to spend on education.

In Greencastle-Antrim School District, which serves about 2,600 students in south-central Franklin County, Pa., the state share of funding is about 35 percent and dropping, Rearick said.

Although many decisions are made on a local level, Rearick says he could save money if he had fewer state rules and regulations to follow.

"It's kind of a tug of war as to who's in control," Rearick said.

The state share has also been slipping in Maryland.

Washington County used to get about half its budget from the state, said David Brandenburg, supervisor of accounting. These days, the state share is about 45 percent, he said.

State legislatures in Pennsylvania and Maryland have increased education spending every year, but not fast enough to cover rising costs, officials said.

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly voted to give large increases to county school systems in order to boost the state's share and make the system more equitable.

In the short term, the money will come from a cigarette tax increase, but state officials still don't know how they're going to sustain the increases in later years.

Nationwide, the average school district gets about half its money from the state government.

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