Robert Swift: Capitol Matters: The gift that keeps on giving
HARRISBURG - The distribution of $30 million in special aid to school districts labeled as "distressed" or "stressed" under the new state budget package is a gift that keeps on giving.
The aid goes to 21 districts, including Hazleton Area School District in Luzerne County, as part of their basic education subsidy.
This means the additional amount will roll into the subsidy bases of those districts when the fiscal 2014-15 state budget is adopted a year from now, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-34, Bellefonte.
House and Senate Republican leaders created 12 categories through which this aid is being channelled in the school code bill. It differs from the criteria used under state law to define a school district in financial distress.
Some categories are self-evident. Consider the roughly $14 million split among Allentown, Reading, York, Lancaster and Lebanon school districts for having a high percentage of students learning English as a second language. Or the $860,000 split among three York County districts to meets costs due to growing student enrollment.
But other categories require some translation.
Hazleton Area receives $1 million as the only district in the 3rd Class County School District category.
A school district in that category must have a 2012-13 market value/income aid ratio greater than 0.6000 and less than 0.6900 and its 2011-12 average daily membership greater than 10,000 and less than 13,000, reads the school code bill.
This language reflects efforts by lawmakers to meet a state constitutional prohibition against special legislation. Therefore, bill writers will routinely create a class for which a provision can apply even if only one entity can actually qualify.
The aid is because of special circumstances facing Hazleton Area with safety issues, community efforts to combat gang violence and high numbers of students who are transient or are learning English as a second language, said Rep. Tara Toohil, R-116, Butler Twp. .
"I am constantly making the case for Hazleton and how we have need for additional funding," she added.
Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District in Clearfield County receives $500,000 as the sole entry in the "rural school district" category.
The money will address the severe financial needs of this district, said Mr. Corman who represents the area.
"I believe now is the appropriate time for the commonwealth to assist schools that are in particular financial stress and help the local residents by providing a quality education for all the students," he added.
Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, would likely agree with Mr. Corman's sentiments, but he voiced his displeasure that Scranton and Carbondale Area School Districts are left out of the distressed supplement.
Democratic lawmakers criticized their counterparts for expanding the focus from just distressed schools to the broader strata of stressed schools.
A proposal by the Senate Democratic caucus would have provided special aid to Scranton, Carbondale Area and Wilkes-Barre Area Districts, but not Hazleton Area. The caucus used such criteria as districts in Act 47 cities such as Scranton and districts with high numbers of poverty-level students eligible for school lunches either free or at reduced costs.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part.