Pennsylvania Schools Short On Funds As Budget Stalemate Continues
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Pennsylvania's Democratic governor is fighting over the state budget with the Republican-controlled legislature. At this point, this year's budget is almost four months overdue. Schools that rely on state funding are feeling it. Solvejg Wastvedt sent this report.
SOLVEJG WASTVEDT, BYLINE: Fifth period just ended at Carbondale Area High School in northeastern Pennsylvania. Superintendent Joe Gorham stands in a patch of sun from a hallway skylight handing out hellos. He moves to the side as students rush by. Gorham says, the fishies are swimming.
JOE GORHAM: You don't go against the stream, you follow the fishies. It's much safer that way.
WASTVEDT: Despite the jokes, there are creases of worry on Gorham's forehead and his voice is strained. Carbondale has big financial problems looming because of Pennsylvania's late budget. The small district always has tight finances. Over half its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Now they're missing over half their $22 million budget because they haven't received any state aid yet. Gorham says they took out almost a million dollars in loans back in June and that money is nearly gone.
GORHAM: We just had to authorize going after probably another $2.3 million.
WASTVEDT: The extra loan would just cover salaries and health care costs. Gorham rattles off a list of day-to-day expenses that it wouldn't touch.
GORHAM: You have heating. You have lighting. You have the copier machines. You have technology. You have phone services.
WASTVEDT: Carbondale senior Sydney Toy says she hasn't noticed changes at school yet, but she's losing patience with her elected officials. The Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders can't agree on how to fix Pennsylvania's big deficit. Toy says school findings should come ahead of all that political maneuvering.
SYDNEY TOY: We can't just sit around and wait and keep putting it off, and putting it off and putting it off. I feel like this is something that needs to come first before anything else.
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TOM WOLF: The math has to actually work. We have to be honest about our budgeting.
WASTVEDT: That's Governor Tom Wolf in a recent address. He insists that the state needs tax increases to balance its books, and he hasn't budged yet. Earlier this fall, he vetoed a temporary funding bill. Instead, his administration offers to guarantee loans for school districts.
JAY BADAMS: We don't see that as a good option.
WASTVEDT: Jay Badams leads the Erie School District. It's much bigger than Carbondale and also has high levels of poverty. It depends on the state for 70 percent of its $178 million budget. The district hasn't paid any of its vendors since July, and soon it won't be able to pay teachers. But Badams bristles at interest costs that make loans expensive in the long run. His district arranged a loan that it hasn't closed on yet. It would get them through mid-January and cost more than $100,000 in interest.
BADAMS: That would be the equivalent of two teacher salaries, a thousand textbooks, hundreds of computers.
WASTVEDT: Instead, Erie asked for an advance on its state funding, but the state treasury and the governor said no. Last month, the school board authorized Badams to consider temporarily shutting down the district if needed. So far he hasn't taken that option.
Joe Gorham at Carbondale has thought about similarly drastic measures - taking three-day weekends to save on heating costs. But both superintendents hesitate because high numbers of their students get free or reduced-price meals at school. For Gorham, it's a last resort and it depends how long the stalemate lasts.
GORHAM: We laughed back in June when they said, look, this budget's not going to be realized until frost is on the pumpkins.
WASTVEDT: Now he worries it may not get done before February. For NPR News, I'm Solvejg Wastvedt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.