Area schools' budget-stalemate anxiety

When many Pennsylvania schools open for the first day of classes tomorrow, they will do so without two months' worth of state funding, because of the state budget stalemate.

Many districts in the Philadelphia suburbs say they can make do for a month or two, or even longer, because on average about two-thirds of their budgets come from other sources.

Philadelphia schools, which get more than half their funding from the state, will open Sept. 8 with classrooms stocked. But payments to vendors might be delayed, said Michael Masch, the district's chief business officer. Anticipating a budget impasse, Philadelphia borrowed short-term cash in July, he said.

A handful of other area districts are struggling already, withholding payments from vendors, not hiring, or scaling back supply orders.

It could get worse. "By the end of September, unless I see the state dollars, the district will be in serious trouble," said Gregory Thornton, superintendent of the Chester Upland School District.

In addition to concern about when monthly payments will flow from Harrisburg, officials are keeping an eye on what the final amount of school aid will be. If it turns out to be less than what they planned for in their budgets, which had to be put in place by June 30, schools might have to make more cuts.

Disagreement over education funding has been one of the obstacles to a new state budget, which was to have been in place July 1. On Tuesday, a special six-person committee of legislators from both chambers is to resume budget negotiations for the first time in more than a month.

So far, almost $1.3 billion in state aid - ranging from special-education subsidies to basic-education funding, the state's main subsidy to districts - has been held up across Pennsylvania. Districts in the Philadelphia region were to collect $375 million of that amount.

The Norristown Area School District is already falling behind on some payments, chief financial officer Anne Marie Rohricht said in an e-mail. The district normally gets about 20 percent of its budget from the state.

"We simply cannot afford to incur the additional expenses associated with taking out a short–term loan," she wrote, "so we have simply stopped paying many vendors so that we can meet our most important financial obligations," including payroll, medical benefits, and debt service.

The Montgomery County district also has held off on launching some programs, such as an after-school tutoring program, that might be curtailed if the district receives less state aid than expected, Rohricht said.

The Avon Grove School District has held off on hiring about 15 staff, most of them classroom aides, district officials said in an e-mail to district workers. An additional dozen positions are being temporarily funded with money earmarked for school building and administrative budgets.

Until the state budget passes, the Chester County district is also freezing hiring for non-classroom, non-instructional positions and eliminating overtime and extra-time duties unless funded by outside sources, the e-mail said. To save money, the district is even posting its newsletter online instead of printing and mailing it to residents.

Chester Upland gets the highest percentage of state aid in the area - about 74 percent of its budget. The Delaware County district normally orders all its supplies in late summer to get discount rates, Thornton said; this year, it had to order only a two- to three-month allotment. Also, the district's back-to-school celebration has been scaled back, he said.

Bucks County's Bristol Township School District, which gets about a third of its money from the state, had been planning to use some state budget money to enhance its math program.

"The longer the holdup, the less likely we will be able to do anything this year" on that program, district spokeswoman Eileen Kelliher said in an e-mail.

The Southeast Delco School District has delayed hiring some tutors for children performing below grade level, acting Superintendent Stephen Butz said. The district gets more than 30 percent of its funding from the state.

Southeast Delco has secured a short-term loan and can "hold on for the next couple of months," Butz said.

The most important thing now, he added, is not coming to a quick budget agreement, but coming to a good one.

"We don't like not having a state budget, but the worst situation would be having our resources substantially reduced by an inadequate budget," he said. "We're willing to wait for an adequate one."

 


Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 610-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Kristen Graham contributed to this article.