GOP VOTES DOWN AID FOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS
HARRISBURG, April 16, 2002 Ė Leading Senate Republicans voted three times today against providing school districts with financial assistance that would help avert local property tax increases in the near future.
In the Senate Rules Committee, State Senator Vincent Fumo (D-Philadelphia) offered three separate amendments to a school code bill. Each amendment would have resulted in additional state funding for public schools throughout the commonwealth Ė two of them by having the state pick up all or part of the payments that school districts make to their pension system, and another that would have increased the education subsidy that the state gives to public schools.
All three amendments failed on straight party-line votes of 7-12, with the Republicans opposing the measures.
In offering the amendments, Fumo noted that the state, at the governorís request, is preparing to give $75 million in additional funding to the financially troubled Philadelphia School District. Yet the governor has proposed giving increases of only one percent to other school districts next year, which is likely to touch off a round of local property tax increases.
"I donít believe itís fair to bail out the Philadelphia School District while leaving other districts hanging out to dry," Fumo said during the debate in the Rules Committee meeting. "If you donít [approve my amendments], school districts throughout Pennsylvania are going to have to raise real estate taxes next year. If you do, they wonít have to raise them, or at least not raise them as much."
While arguing against the amendments, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola of Dauphin County, the Republican Whip, claimed that school districts were in better shape financially than the state, and contended that many school districts were sitting on significant amounts of surplus money that they could use to avert tax increases.
"Iím shocked to find out that there is so much affluence out there in other school districts," responded Fumo, who said he has heard from many school districts, and local taxpayers, who fear that they will not receive sufficient state aid next year to maintain their educational programs without a tax increase.
With state retirement costs rising due to the state-mandated benefit increases, and with pension fund investments suffering losses due to the weakened economy of the past year, the money that school districts must contribute to their employee pension fund is expected to almost double for the next fiscal year.
Fumoís first amendment would have required the state to pick up all of those costs for 2002-03, saving school districts a total of $100 million dollars. When Republicans voted that down, Fumo offered a more modest amendment that would have required the state to pick up all of the costs above what districts are contributing this year. That would have given districts a total of $50 million.
Again, Republicans killed it on a straight party-line vote.
In the debate, Piccola complained that when the state lowered the retirement contribution rate several years ago, the school districts "never said thank you."
The third amendment that Fumo proposed guaranteed that the state would increase the subsidy for school districts by three percent next year instead of the governorís proposed one percent. That would have provided districts with an additional $119 million of funding above the current year, or $79 million more than the governorís proposal.
That amendment, too, was voted down by the GOP majority.
In the wake of those votes, Fumo offered an amendment on behalf of Sen. Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia that would have increased accountability of the newly created Philadelphia School Reform Commission by creating a three-member board to collect and evaluate educational achievement data. Republicans voted that amendment down as well.
Then, with Democrats opposed, Republicans voted the bill out of committee and sent it to the floor of the Senate. The bill gives the School District of Philadelphia the opportunity to issue $300 million in bonds to cover its operating expenses.
Sen. Robert Mellow, the Democratic Leader, warned that allowing the district to borrow money to cover its operating expenses was an unwise move that would simply worsen the future financial problems of Philadelphia Schools.