Fitzpatrick to Gov. Wolf: Release Federal Education Funds

Congressman’s Notebook 3.20.16

Pennsylvania’s well known budget impasse is more than that; it’s a stalemate of serious proportions affecting school districts from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and all the districts in-between.

From the outset, Governor Tom Wolf has withheld distribution of federal education funds already paid to the state for everything from Special Education priorities to Career and Technical Centers. The impact of the Governor’s continued refusal to address the damage being done to school districts is well documented — from districts pulling operating funds from “rainy day” accounts to potential bond and credit rating downgrades as many take on debt to keep classroom doors open.

Close to home, the Centennial and Souderton school districts enacted budget freezes in January. Bristol Borough School District is borrowing money to bridge the funding gap it faces. And in Quakertown, leaders are attempting to cut millions from next year’s budget by June 30.

In all, a recent survey shows 39 percent of districts have been operating in this school year by drawing on reserves, making cuts and holding off on purchases and payments.

These realities are much more frustrating when considering there is money sitting in Harrisburg, at this moment, specifically marked for education. More than $1 billion in designated federal education funding was appropriated to Pennsylvania this year. Most recently, the governor line-item vetoed the legislature’s budget proposal on Dec. 29, 2015, blocking the release of 50 percent of education funds.

No student, parent, teacher or administrator should be placed in a position where a lack of reliable funding threatens to close the school doors before the end of the year, or the beginning of the next.

After speaking with constituents, educators and administrators, this week I sent a letter to the governor calling on him to address these serious issues in a manner other than providing guidelines on how to close schools. Specifically, we’re asking the governor to address the restriction of federal funds and the litany of issues it creates, namely, faculty and staff layoffs, possible school closings preventing students from meeting federal graduation requirements, bond rating downgrades and the inability of school boards to plan and budget for the coming school year.

We know that each federal dollar does more than a dollar’s worth of work in the school districts that receive them. The loss of this funding will serve to increase the district’s cost by requiring either alternate funding or curtailing programs now that will lead to higher costs of future remediation.

As Mark Miller, president-elect of the PSBA and member of the Centennial School Board, warns: “The potential consequences of lost federal funds now will have both coincidental and consequential impact on district finances for years into the future.”

The lasting effects are not overstated.

Looming is the potential that several school districts across the Commonwealth will be forced to close their doors, some within the next 30 days. If this happens, school districts who fail to meet their 180-day calendar will lose 1/180th of their federal dollars for each day lost — funding that will never be recovered.

Equally as important, if not more, is the classroom time lost for students. For seniors, days lost could delay graduation — disastrous for those reporting for military enlistment or to Service Academies. For those seeking technical education, CTCs could close as a cost-saving measure, and vital programs for those with disabilities could be gutted.

In Washington, I was co-sponsor of a bill known as No Budget, No Pay that says if Congress can’t pass a budget, its members shouldn’t collect a paycheck. In Harrisburg, Governor Wolf’s version of “No Budget, No Pay” is vastly different: No budget, no funding for schools.

The delay in adopting the Pennsylvania budget has had more than a ripple effect on our school districts. Governor Wolf should immediately release federal funds.