Baer: Money for education is there - in school districts' reserves

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John Baer: State Department of Education data show reserves total more than $4.6 billion for the 2014-15 school year; your tax dollars in interest-bearing accounts.

LET'S TAKE A WALK on the twisted trail of Pennsylvania school finance.

This, for me, is an annual stroll to note how green our education system is - and question constant cries of crisis and calls for higher taxes.

The subject is public-school reserve funds held by 96 percent of our 500 school districts in three interchangeable accounts, for use pretty much as they wish.

State Department of Education data show reserves total more than $4.6 billion for the 2014-15 school year; your tax dollars in interest-bearing accounts.

That's $200 million more than in 2013-14.

This isn't operating dollars. It's reserve money.

Totals grow every year: $3.5 billion in 2010-11; $3.8 billion in 2011-12 when then-Gov. Corbett "cut education by $1 billion;" $4.2 billion the next year, and so on.

Philadelphia, of course, has nothing. In fact, it's got negative reserves of $10 million, which is much better than its prior-year negative of $120 million.

Charter schools, which don't share all district costs, are different: 69 of Philly's 89 charters show reserves totaling more than $138 million. The other 20 have no funds or negative balances.

And while Pittsburgh shows the state's largest balance ($198 million), the law governing reserves generally favors wealthier districts.

Of 62 districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties, only one, Chester-Upland, has a negative balance ($7.7 million).

Reserves in those four counties total more than $880 million.

Examples: Lower Merion, $55 million; Neshaminy, $41 million; North Penn, $36 million; West Chester, $27 million; Upper Darby, $22 million.

Statewide, only 17 districts have no reserves or negative balances. They include Scranton, Erie, Aliquippa, and Steelton-Highspire outside Harrisburg.

It's a lot of numbers. And, as noted, they are from the end of last school year - before the impact of a nine-month state budget impasse.

A survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators says 83 percent of districts will use some reserves to balance 2016-17 budgets.

An Education Department spokesman says reserves likely will be less next year.

But the size of the pool and its annual growth raises questions.

How is there ever a statewide crisis, teacher layoffs, classroom cuts, and calls for higher taxes with so much money sitting in the system?

Since only 17 districts have no reserves, why did 48 recently borrow $746 million "to keep their schools open," according to the survey of districts?

And with billions in holdings, how can 85 percent of districts plan to increase local school taxes, according to the same survey?

Jay Himes, director of the school business officials group, says districts need funds for rising pension costs, pending and future construction, balances that impress ratings agencies and hedge against things like nine-month budget fights.

But he also says examining the size of reserves is "a very legitimate question," a discussion "every school board should have with its constituents."

I've heard the same arguments (and admissions the issue is worthy of review) for years: from legislative education committee chairmen, teacher unions, school boards, and budget secretaries to two governors.

I understand well-run districts can't be faulted for strong financials; and wealthy districts are, well, wealthy. I get that some reserves are necessary, for many of the reasons given.

Still. It's a boatload of money. In 10 years it grew from $1.7 billion to $4.6 billion.

But there will be no review. There will be no discussion. And I'll tell you why.

The Legislature makes the rules. Local school boards use the rules. And politicians at all levels like to give things away, not take things away.

baerj@phillynews.com

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