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School fund deal needed

October 16, 2003

Ever paid a bill late? Did you worry about what might happen as a result? Pennsylvania lawmakers had better start worrying, because they're just two weeks away from missing the year's second state school aid payment, and at least one school district's officials say they can't survive without it.

The stalemate developed after the election of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who wanted to diminish the state's reliance on local property taxes to fund education.

But if you eliminate one source you've got to find another. Rendell proposed boosting the state's income tax to cover what would be lost in property-tax revenues. Immediately state lawmakers had a vision of future opponents painting them as tax-and-spend lawmakers. Hence the stalemate.

If this were only an argument between two branches of government, we'd be content to see it go on as long as both groups' members want. But we're talking about potential damage to local school systems - and to local taxpayers as well.

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As a result of the stalemate, the state's 501 school districts didn't receive the year's first state payment. Most have covered that shortfall by using local funds, but if you count on state funds for a large part of your budget, that strategy won't work for too long.

In preparation for the worst, officials of the Jeannette City School District in Westmoreland County wrote students' parents a letter saying that it does not have many alternatives when its local funds run out in November.

Could schools be shut down? It's a real possibility. A proposal for stop-gap funding will be vetoed, the governor said, because it would allow lawmakers to avoid considering his proposed education initiatives like all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and preschool programs in the state's poorest districts.

Eric Arneson, a spokesman for David Brightbill, who leads the Pennsylvania Senate's Republicans, sees a strong possibility that an economic upturn will make all this debate unnecessary.

Both sides are kidding themselves - the Democratic governor that he could get everything in one year from a legislature dominated by the opposing party and Republican lawmakers that they could forever avoid the consequences of past borrowings and accounting tricks.

Without state aid, local school districts will have to begin borrowing cash on their own, using the property tax base as collateral. Before that happens, both sides need to get serious and solve the state's school-funding issue now.

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