Pottstown School Board adopts $62.7M budget with 3.5% tax hike amid fight for fair school funding

Pottstown School District Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez speaks at a rally for fair school funding in Harrisburg in June, 2018. He'll be there again June 12.

POTTSTOWN — Knowing that Pennsylvania's funding gap between rich and poor school districts is the worst in the nation makes Kelly Grosser angry.

Most unequal

Kelly Grosser, Youth Program Director for YWCA Tri-County Area, with a chart indicating that Pennsylvania, represented by the long blue line at the far left, has the worst gap between poor and wealthy school districts in the nation. More than twice as bad as the next worst state.

"It's despicable," said Grosser during a recent "Education Equity" workshop at Montgomery County Community College's West Campus in Pottstown.

Grosser, youth program director for YWCA Tri-County Area, gets even angrier when she talks about the fact that even when school districts have a similar poverty level, the state funding system provides more dollars per student to districts with more white students.

"How do they sleep at night?" she asked, not expecting an answer.

She was referring to state legislators who, by failing to apply Pennsylvania's Fair School Funding formula to all public education, perpetuate this racial inequity in Pennsylvania's public education funding.

There are fewer of them all the time, as more and more become co-sponsors of House Bill 961, introduced by state Rep. Chris Rabb, D-200th Dist.


From left, Laura Johnson, Lisa Stephenson-Horne and Paula Nealy-Corson meet with state Rep. Tim Hennessey to get his support for HB 961

Most recently, state Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-26th Dist., who represents the southern portion of Pottstown, signed on.

That bill would immediately implement the fair funding formula for all Pennsylvania public schools. Under the current system, 52 percent of all public school students in the Keystone state attend under-funded schools, according to Rabb.

"Just literally a few minutes drive from here, there is a school district which gets $3,500 more per student, per year," Rabb while in Pottstown on April 15.

The number of people headed to Harrisburg June 12 to change that, and support House Bill 961, is increasing by the bus load — literally.

Last year, when POWER, a faith-based advocacy group, recruited Pottstown leaders and residents to rally against this inequity in Harrisburg, they filled a bus.

This year, they've filled two and a third bus is filling up fast. The buses leave Pottstown High School, 750 N. Washington St., at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 12. Participants should arrive no later than 8:30 a.m.

There's still room for those who want to go and make their voices heard. (There's a free lunch.) You can register by emailing the event’s lead organizer Nathan Sooy at nsooy@powerphiladelphia.org

"On June 12, I will be in Harrisburg. If you want to come with me, I'll figure out how to get the buses and we will storm the gates," Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez told those attending a May 9 school board meeting to discuss budget cuts.

"And when I say we'll storm the gates, I don't mean for nothing. We've been working for years on something that will actually change the bottom line, so write this down. House Bill 961 calls for 100 percent use of the Fair Funding Formula," said Rodriguez.

"You have to go to Harrisburg, there's really no excuse," State Rep. Joe Ciresi told the crowd gathered May 16 to protest possible cuts to Pottstown's music program, cuts the school board rejected.

The crux of the problem goes back to the adoption of the fair funding formula in 2016. Were all education funding in Pennsylvania distributed by that formula, Pottstown would receive an additional $13 million in state aid every year.

As  Rodriguez has said more than once, with funding like that, Pottstown Schools could be expanding programs and lowering taxes instead of raising taxes and considering cutting popular programs like the music program.

The problem is, just a tiny fraction of education funding is distributed this way, the rest uses the old system.

Studies show racial bias in Pennsylvania school funding

David Mosenkis, data researcher for POWER

In 2016, POWER researcher David Mosenkis, who was researching what complete use of the fair funding formula would look like, stumbled upon the fact that failure to enact the full formula favors districts with more white students.

His findings were confirmed in a second study in 2017 by the Education Law Center titled "Money Matters in Education Justice."

“Poor communities of color thus face several layers of inequity as a result of Pennsylvania’s school funding system,” according to the Education Law Center report. “They shoulder the highest local tax burden and yet still receive less state aid per student than similarly situated, whiter districts.”

"The racial aspect of this is not new," Grosser said sadly to the group of residents gathered in the community college classroom to learn more about the problem. 

"Whether you look at racial inequity in the prison system, or in housing, it's sad to say but this country has not progressed as far as we once believed," said Grosser.

Education Apartheid

The fact that the more white students a district has, the more funding per-student is receives from the state has led organizers to label Pennsylvania's education system "Education Apartheid."

This inherent bias in Pennsylvania's public school funding system, has led those seeking to change it to label it as "Education Apartheid," in reference to the racially segregated system in South Africa.

One major political barrier to enacting fair funding as Rabb's bill seeks to do is a benign-sounding government term called "hold harmless."

This is how the fair funding formula got passed in the first place, by pledging to all state legislators that the school districts they represent would never receive less state education funding than they already do.

One problem with this philosophy is it gets harder to justify when you ask the question: What happens when a school district continues to lose population? Should it still be getting the same level of state funding for fewer students?

Grosser explained "hold harmless" this way: "If a district got $2 million, and then lost half their students, which has happened slowly to districts in the center of the state, they still get $2 million, despite having half as many students."

That's the case in many central parts of the state which also happen to have much smaller minority populations. Thus as a whiter population gets smaller in these districts, the state-education-dollars-per-white-student ratio rises.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Racial bias revealed in Pennsylvania’s school funding

This chart, taken from Pennsylvania Department of Education data, shows that while both Pottstown and Mahanoy City in Schuylkill County have similar levels of poverty, and would receive similar levels of basic education funding under the Fair Funding formula, Pottsown, which has a less white population, receives significantly less under the current funding mechanism, while Mahanoy, which has more white students, receives more than its fair share.

“On average, the whitest districts gets thousands of dollars more than their fair share for each student, while the least-white districts get thousands less for each student than their fair share,” Moseknis wrote in his 2016 study.

“If you look at it on a per-student basis, the larger districts are the ones getting less of their fair share, but they represent the majority of the students in the state,” Mosenkis said in 2017.

He rejects the Harrisburg argument that changing the distribution of school dollars would constitute “harm to some districts to help others. Because that defines ‘no harm’ as the status quo, when the majority of students in Pennsylvania are harmed by the status quo. To not change this system so that all education funding goes through the fair funding formula is to say systemically that some students are more deserving of resources than others.”

Just ask the Stone siblings.

The family Stone

Charlotte, Chris and Collin Stone attended the May 20 Equity in Education Workshop to learn more about the issues and to learn what they can do to help.

Brother and sister Charlotte and Chris Stone, who attended the workshop, said they've seen it.

Charlotte, a 2015 graduate of Pottstown High School, said she was amazed to hear about resources other students had access to when she went to college.

Her brother Chris, a 2017 graduate, is now at Villanova University and said he saw the same thing.

Hearing stories about what his classmates had at their high schools, highlights what they have and Pottstown does not, he said.

Their younger brother Collin is now in Pottstown schools and they would like him to have more opportunities.

That's why they're getting on the bus to Harrisburg June 12.

It's also worth noting, said Grosser, that districts that have been getting more of their fair share for decades have built up very comfortable fund balances. As a result, the "harm" they would experience from getting less education funding than the year before could be mitigated by their sizable savings.

Unequal funding by region

Kelly Grosser shows that the absence of full fair funding mostly affects school districts in Southeast Pennsylvania. And while they may represent a minority of school districts, they represent a majority of the state's public school students, 52% in fact.

What's stopping progress on this issue is that many of the Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania Legislature (the GOP controls both houses) represent districts where school funding would diminish if the fair funding formula were to be fully implemented, said Grosser.

As a result, allowing a vote on a bill that would result in school districts back home getting less state aid is a non-starter politically, she said.

Just one person, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-28th Dist., can keep House Bill 961 from coming to the floor.

Pa. House Speaker Turzai visits Pope John Paul II High School to push tax credits

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai promotes proposed legislation to expand tax credits for donations to education at Pope John Paul II High School last year.

"If Speaker Turzai decides that bill is not going to make it to the floor, if we don't have the opportunity to get a hearing; if we don't have the opportunity for it to go the education committee for it to actually get to the House, even though we have 56 co-spsonsors for the bill and only need 102 votes for it to pass, one person can keep that from going to the floor," Rodriguez said.

He suggested contacting Turzai to fight for Pottstown's fair share of education funding.

You can email Turzai at mturzai@pahousegop.com or give him a call in Harrisburg at (717) 772-9943, or at his district office, which can be reached at (412) 369-2230.

Turzai has represented his Allegheney County House district since 2001. That district is 90 percent white.

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