Education funding group hears local testimony

Perkiomen Valley Superintendent Clifford Rogers, second from right, speaks during a public hearing on basic education funding. at Perkiomen Valley High School on Thursday Oct. 16, 2014.
Perkiomen Valley Superintendent Clifford Rogers, second from right, speaks during a public hearing on basic education funding. at Perkiomen Valley High School on Thursday Oct. 16, 2014. John Strickler — The Mercury

PERKIOMEN >> Members of the Basic Education Funding Commission met with local school superintendents Thursday at Perkiomen Valley High School to hear their issues regarding the school education formula.

State Rep. Mike Vereb, R-150th, one of the leaders of the commission tasked with coming up with a new basic education funding formula, hosted the hearing in a school where he was first drawn to the issue. Perkiomen Valley High School students protesting budget cuts this spring reached out to Vereb for his help in securing more education funding, putting the representative at the forefront of education funding reform.

“We’ve been statewide,” Vereb said of the commission. “What we’ve heard from multiple superintendents is our non-taxable properties, special education, transportation; they’re the same issues coming up. It’s a matter of how do we tackle those issues moving forward.”

In addition to Perkiomen Valley Superintendent Cliff Rogers, superintendents from Spring-Ford Area (David Goodin), Methacton (David Zerbe), Norristown Area (Janet Samuels), Phoenixville Area (Alan Fegley), Hatboro-Horsham (Curtis Griffin) and North Penn (Curtis Dietrich) gave testimonies to the commission in the high school’s auditorium.

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Oxford Area School District Superintendent David Woods had written testimony submitted to the commission.

“I think we had a great, diverse snapshot, a screenshot, of southeastern Pennsylvania,” Vereb said. “One thing I think the commission learned today is we have wealth and we have poverty ... that’s the balance we have to strike.”

Each administrator discussed their own school district’s situation regarding education funding and current and/or future problems they see.

Non-taxable properties were brought up as one of the top issues within districts such as Norristown and Perkiomen Valley, where state and county government buildings and Graterford State Correctional Facility, respectively, create problems with revenue generation.

“We have (more than) 559 tax exempt properties,” said Samuels. “The assessed value of these properties is approximately $586 million, or approximately 18 percent of our total assessment.”

She noted that 73 percent of their budget comes from local taxpayers, meaning they’ve needed to cut staff and services in recent years.

Rogers told the commission that since 1995, Perkiomen Valley’s per pupil subsidy from the state has only increased by $65. With budget constraints afforded by un-taxable properties like Graterford and mounting pressure from pension funds, Rogers said Perkiomen Valley spends the second least in Montgomery County per classroom.

Still, they’re facing a #3.7 million deficit for 2015-16.

“We ask that you re-think the definition of school district wealth,” Rogers said, also requesting a new formula based on per pupil costs to take factors into consideration like demographics and regional cost of living.

Special education costs were also an issue which the superintendents brought up.

Goodin said Spring-Ford has seen a 9 percent increase in special education students (approximately 125 new students) since 2009 but have seen a 10.8 percent decrease in funding for special education not just from the state but federal sources as well.

For 2013-14, Spring-Ford’s “local effort” to support special education increased 35.8 percent, according to Goodin’s testimony.

“Our growth continues to outrun our basic education funding that we’re receiving,” Fegley said, adding that Phoenixville’s special education population has grown by 16 percent but funding has only increased by about 2 percent.

Reassessments pose a menace to school district budgets as well.

Spring-Ford has been burned in recent years by reassessments of large businesses in its community.

Dietrich said North Penn’s largest taxpayer is Merck and Company which makes up $13 million in tax money, more than $11 million more than the next largest taxpayer. A reassessment is possible.

“We’ve got a lot of eggs in one basket,” he said. “As Merck goes, so we go, to an extent.”

Dietrich said they just have to “hope (Merck doesn’t) call for reassessment.”

Members of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), a religious-based “community organization” group, performed a silent protest outside of the hearing because there was no public comment period allowed in the hearing. Among other issues, its members felt companies like Merck should be carrying more weight in the education funding picture.

At one point in the hearing, they yelled, “What about corporate taxes?”

Margaret Ernst, communications director with POWER, said they feel there should be more public input into the hearing to bring up issues like corporate taxing.

“We’ve tried to get on those panels,” she said. “We’ve tried to submit testimony after meetings.”

Outside of corporate taxing and, admitting it was “outside the box,” Dietrich proposed potentially expanding the Homestead Exclusion rebate program for more taxpayer relief.

Dietrich said his district has seen a $2 million increase in state subsidies since 2001, but that doesn’t do much to offset the $100 million increase in that time to the district’s yearly operating budget, even though the district has 200 less staff members.

Rep. Mark Longietti (D 7th Dist.), on the commission, said the main thing he’s been taking away from the hearings is that the issue with the current method of state education funding surrounds “adequacy.”

“When we shift the dollars around, they’re inadequate to begin with,” Longietti said he’s heard.

He also likened the state’s pension crisis to an outstanding credit card bill.

“Until that is solved, we’re never going to make a profit,” Dietrich said. “The pension obligation provided a significant drain on our school district’s budget.”

In addition to hearing from the panels of superintendents, an independent school finance consultant, Mike Griffith, of Education Commission of the States, filled in the commission and those present on how other states do their education funding.

Most states do “foundation funding”, which is essentially cost per pupil funding. Another popular system, used primarily in the south, he said is a “top-down” system called the “resource allocation system.” That system creates funding by “costing out” components of education and calculating what funding and resources each district should receive.

In his testimony, Dietrich told the commission he had some hope that they would make positive changes in funding, especially since a recent special education funding commission “did good work.”

“This goes into next year,” Vereb said. “We’re considering offering a preliminary report sometime in January. But we have the full year to deal with this.”

Because the commission was created by a law passed this summer, Vereb said it will not be affected by the election, whether Gov. Tom Corbett goes or stays.

Next week, the commission will be meeting in Pittsburgh. There are plans to come to Philadelphia, as well.

The most recent trip took the commission to Cambria County.

“You have schools up there with 105 and 110 kids in an entire school,” Vereb said. “Down here, if you have 105, 110 kids in an entire class, you close the school. We’re a very diverse state.”

When it comes time to come up with a report next year, Vereb wants to at least change pieces of the funding picture.

“If we can’t implement the full report, we hope to implement aspects that are important,” Vereb said. “But we’re breaking history here in Pennsylvania by just examining what’s going on and I think we’ve had great testimony.”

Rogers testified that he believed the commission needs to figure out what would be fair and then create a formula which will “build toward that over the next several years.” Asked after the hearing whether he thought the commission would yield anything, he smiled.

“I think the proof will be in the pudding,” Rogers said. “We’ll see what occurs.”

-- Information from The Pottstown Mercury.