Perkiomen Valley takes funding concerns to state legislators

PERKIOMEN — Just before the theatrics of this year’s state budget passage ramped up, a group representing the Perkiomen Valley School District visited Harrisburg to appeal for a revamped formula for funding education.

“This is sort of the next step in the Perkiomen Valley walkout we had,” said Mollie Kelly, a junior when she took part in the demonstration this spring. “We definitely wanted to make a change to the funding formula because it is flawed.”

Kelly, student walkout organizer Cassidy Mattiola, Mattiola’s father, Robert, and Perkiomen Valley School Board Vice President Paul Smith journeyed together to the state capital June 26 to appeal to legislators for change.

“I believe the trip went really well,” Mattiola said. “All it takes is a couple of people to go down and let the law makers hear the truth — it doesn’t take an angry crowd of protestors or a charismatic intellect — just a person with some passion about what they’re talking about.”

Smith said Rep. Mark Painter, D-146th Dist., took Smith, Mattiola and Kelly before the Democrat caucus to speak about public education funding formula, while Rep. Mike Vereb, R-150th Dist., had them meet key Republicans in the state government, including Speaker of the House Sam Smith.

In both cases, Smith told the legislators about Perkiomen Valley’s taxpayers paying $1,162 more than what the state’s average taxpayer pays.

“There are many groups speaking across the state to this issue,” Smith said. “There are groups traveling to Harrisburg to speak to this issue, including a group speaking on the Capitol rotunda steps as we were making our visits last Thursday. So there is a lot of pressure against this issue.”

Many legislators come from districts which receive funding above the state average, according to Smith, which could be a stumbling block when looking for reform.

As such, Smith said he was told House Bill 76 might be an alternative to help ease problems districts are facing with funding. That bill proposes eliminating real estate taxes in favor of a new formula which raises personal income tax and sales tax, among other new taxes, to fund schools.

“I think we were definitely able to have our voices heard, and not just students, but everybody in the community,” Kelly said.

In addition to Smith, several other school board members from Perkiomen Valley have made appeals to the state government, including Andrea Galambos, who went just before the school board passed its 2014-15 budget.

Perkiomen Valley has been particularly galvanized to seek out state assistance or a change in school funding since this year’s budget became particularly stressful for all parties. The potential furloughs of three high school teachers spurred a student walkout and a public comment period in the following board meeting which stretched past two hours.

Eventually, a budget passed which included 10 percent cuts to the athletic department and the building budgets for many schools, though there were indications that 2015-16’s budget will likely be even more painful.

“The problem doesn’t just stop when the deadline is coming up or when the budget is finally made,” Mattiola said. “It’s all year long. I think it’s important that everyone remembers that. We need to make sure that the lawmakers know that we won’t take anymore hits at the cost of our education.”

“We definitely want to do something next year that really pulls together stuff with people from Harrisburg and students because we know there are a lot of students who want to do something,” Kelly said.

She said that although the issues were difficult, she believed that it was a “great experience for everyone because it made a lot of students” come together and “made everyone take a good look at the budget” when they might have ignored it otherwise.

The Perkiomen Valley “envoy” to Harrisburg seemed optimistic about their concerns being heard.

“My intent was to put a face and a cost impact in front of these legislators,” Smith said.

Their work is far from over, Smith indicated.

“We are committed to speak for change in the pension system,” Smith said. “We will continue to work with our legislators to keep these issues top-of-mind with them and their peers in the house and senate.”

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.