State budget restores funding to Unionville

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Board of education faces choices on saving, cutting taxes, saving jobs or a mix of all three after some $827,000 restored

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign a new state budget of $27.15 billion that comes which much smaller school funding cuts than expected for Unionville-Chadds Ford.

Finally, some good news from Harrisburg, at least for the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.

The state House of Representatives followed the state Senate and passed the 2011-12 state budget, a budget that Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign Thursday — and while the new governor got what he wanted in broad terms, the $27.15 billion budget comes in under his ceiling of $27.3 billion and calls for no new state taxes, the deep cuts in state education funding he called for in March were not preserved by the legislature.

Still, for the first time in nine years, the state budget is done before the deadline of June 30 and represents a spending cut across state government. The cuts are spurred, in part by the end of federal stimulus funds, intended to jumpstart the economy during the recent fiscal crisis. Republicans, who managed impressive solidarity, lauded the move to what they said was more responsible spending.

“This is a remarkable break from past budgeting decisions,” said state Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-9), who represents the southern five towns of the Unionville school district and is the state Senate Majority Leader, and played a key role in negotiating the final budget provisions. “In prior decades, the first instinct was to raise taxes, not to make the difficult decisions necessary for government to live within its means.”

Democrats, virtually all of whom opposed the budget, decried the cuts to education funding and social services. State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-19) who represents Newlin and West Marlborough, expressed concerns about the new budget’s impact, but felt the legislature’s version of the budget was less damaging than what the governor proposed.

“Even with these restored funds, school districts will still be hurting, but they won’t be devastated as they would have been under the governor’s March budget,” Dinniman said. “I am very happy that the legislators want to increase funding for education over what the governor wanted to spend, because every dollar in increased state funding means one less dollar in property taxes.

“I’m not saying this proposed education budget is perfect; I’m not saying it shouldn’t include more state funding,” Dinniman said. “But it sure is a lot better than what we started with.”

That means that a roughly $1.1 million cut in state funding to Unionville has been slashed to less than $300,000, as about $827,000 of the funding was restored in the new budget. Most of the money comes in three categories: keeping the payroll-tax matching rate at 50% — which could have meant a loss of some $612,000; and a restoration of some basic education funding and some accountability block grant funds makes up most of the rest.

The payroll tax matching was a priority for a number of southeast legislators, State Rep. Steve Barrar (R-160) said. Barrar, who represents Chadds Ford, Pocopson and Birmingham in the Unionville school district, said that cutting that match unfairly penalized schools that already get an unfairly small amount of state aid.

“Southeast suburban legislators fought very hard to keep that in there (the budget),” he said.

Although the Unionville budget, given final passage on June 20, does not have a spending target for these funds, it did incorporate them as unspent reserve, allowing them to be used if the budget process played out as school officials expected. It did, so now the Board of Education and administration will need to decide how much — or whether — to spend the funds.

Earlier this month, with the prospect of these funds coming to the district after the budgeting process was complete, the board considered options — including setting funds aside to cope with expected increases in contributions to the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS), restore some of the cuts, including, potentially, 10 support  personnel laid off effective today and other options.

“Obviously, there are 3 major possibilities — return it to the taxpayers; save it to offset future expenses (such as PSERS); spend it responsibly,” said Keith Knauss, who chairs the board’s Finance Committee. “I’d like to see a combination of all three.”

With the board not scheduled to meet again until August, it’s unclear when those decisions will be made, but the school district’s administration and Superintendent of Schools Sharon Parker are currently working on various options for the board to review.

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