Within the budget passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett will be increases in public school funding, with additional funding being granted to one local school district.
The Austin Area School District, the smallest of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts, will receive a Basic Educational Funding Supplement of more than $200,000, according to Superintendent Jerome Sasala.
“This is not a grant — we were financially troubled, and we went to our local legislators and showed them the situation we’re in, the great job we’re doing and what we’ve been able to accomplish. We think we’re doing something good here, and they gave us the additional money we needed to keep us afloat,” said Sasala.
Additional funding is expected to be between $200,000 and $250,000, but the exact numbers have not yet been released, Sasala said.
Educational funding has not risen as quickly over the years as the cost of all the things necessary for districts to provide to both their students and staff. Retirement and health care costs have skyrocketed, while many areas, especially in rural northcentral Pennsylvania, are losing residents, and therefore tax revenue.
“Our problem here is that our taxpayers are already taxed as high as they can be,” Sasala said. “Much of the land within the area we serve is state land, and schools receive very little revenue from these sources.”
Children in the Austin Area School District come from Austin Borough and the townships of Keating, Portage, Sylvania and Wharton townships in Potter County. The district serves a total of 228-square-miles, but with just more than 1,200 residents to pitch in revenue. In addition, there is very little industry in this area, and the median household income in 2009 was just over $36,000.
While people across the region have called for schools to consolidate, Austin’s situation is unique. The school serves only 212 children from pre-school through the 12th grade, but busing these children to other districts would be just as expensive, due to the long distances students would have to travel each day.
This year’s state budget saw a 2.3 percent increase over last year, with basic education receiving a total increase of $122.5 million overall. A total of $90 million of that will be spread throughout the state’s 500 school districts, while the remaining $30 million will go to the 21 schools earmarked as needing additional help, or labeled as “distressed.”
Most of the districts receiving a boost lie in more urban areas — with the bulk of additional funding going to counties like Allegheny, York, Dauphin and Delaware. Only two other districts within the region will receive this additional funding, besides Austin: Penn’s Valley Area in Centre County and Philipsburg-Osceola in Clearfield County will each receive $500,000.
Corbett also pushed a plan to privatize the sale of liquor throughout the state, proposing that the $800 million in anticipated revenues could be earmarked for educational initiatives. This plan was tossed out in the Legislature, but may be revisited during the fall session.
Sasala credits local legislators with remembering the smaller school districts, and the struggles faced across rural Pennsylvania for this much-needed boost, which will go into the regular budget for the coming year.
“We’re so remote, and they think we’re doing a good job. Our elementary school ranked 6th out of 3,000 for performance gains recently,” Sasala said. “All the studies show that kids need to feel a sense of community to thrive, and in Austin, our school is our community.”