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Pa. budget plan could affect area schools

June 04, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- The Pennsylvania House of Representatives' Education Committee has developed a 2009-10 budget proposal that closely mirrors Gov. Ed Rendell's spending plan for schools.

The legislation, which must go before the full House, would increase basic education funding by $418 million.

State Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin, a member of the Education Committee, said Wednesday's approval vote was 14-11, along party lines. Rock, a former teacher and Waynesboro Area School Board member, voted against the plan.

"We're running these big deficits, and this would add another $1 billion," he said.

Rock's reasoning concerns federal stimulus dollars proposed to bolster spending. He said House Bill 1493 would require the legislature to fund schools at the inflated amount, even after the stimulus expires in two years.

Unrelated issues like expiring electric rate caps and changes to the state retirees pension program already will create large financial hits in two years, Rock said.

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"During these economic times, I don't think anyone wants to raise taxes. ... I just feel it's irresponsible at this point because of the way the economy is," he said.

Rock is more in favor of scaling back basic education funding to the 2006 level, then adding stimulus money so schools don't realize cuts from their most-recent levels.

State Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin/Cumberland, said he's not yet familiar with the details of House Bill 1493, but he had issues with the governor's proposal announced in February.

"I think his education budget is absolutely unrealistic at this point in our fiscal year," Kauffman said, saying revenue projections look increasingly bleak and questions remain concerning how stimulus money can be spent.

School funding for kindergarten through 12th grade represents about 40 percent of the state's approximately $28 billion budget.

"I believe (Rendell's) education budget is likely not to be passed as is," Kauffman said. "The money just is not there."

According to a news release, House Bill 1493 would allow school districts to raise property taxes beyond the rate of inflation if they need revenue to maintain existing programs. They would "request a waiver from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for 25 percent of the increased funding that exceeds inflation" through the provision set to expire Dec. 31, 2010.

Currently, Act 1 of 2006 caps property tax increases near the rate of inflation unless school districts seek exemptions or voter approval.

Neither Rock nor Kauffman were aware of that provision tied to House Bill 1493.

"That's dangerous territory. Act 1 (exemptions) have rarely ever been used," Kauffman said.

The Senate already passed its spending plan, Bill 850, and in it decreed that no new or increased taxes would be levied. Its provisions for education are confusing, but the essential idea is:

o Basic education funding would remain at the 2008-09 level.

o Other areas like Title 1 (for low-income students) and IDEA (special education) would face cuts.

o Federal stimulus money would be used to close gaps or provide overall increases in the areas that face cuts.

The legislature is supposed to pass its budget by June 30, although Kauffman and others have speculated the deadline might be missed.

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