A local school superintendent was not surprised last month when his district appeared on the governor’s list of 25 “most underfunded” schools in Pennsylvania – but he takes some pleasure in seeing new steps to make education funding more equitable.

“We are grateful that the governor and legislators are beginning to address the issue related to equitable funding for the 500 school districts across the commonwealth,” Arthur Abrom, superintendent of Lebanon School District, told LebTown. “Unfortunately the reason Lebanon is on the list is because we have been significantly underfunded for years.”

Gov. Tom Wolf on June 25 announced his support for a state budget “that invests in the future of our children with the largest public school funding increase in state history,” a statement from the governor’s office said. “This budget also takes major steps to stabilize child care to help working parents as they return to the workforce.”

It is, the governor said, the largest increase in education funding in Pennsylvania history.

“Our economy has weathered the pandemic, and now is roaring forward. We are a commonwealth on the comeback,” the governor said.

“The budget also helps stabilize child care so working parents can return to the workforce, provides for their families and grows the economy,” he added. “We are addressing the housing crisis, so homeowners and renters will have a roof over their head and a safe place to live. This is a budget that invests in Pennsylvanians.”

Over the past six years, the governor’s office announced, Wolf has increased annual funding to schools by $1.8 billion, including the $416 million added to the revenue stream this year.

The $416 million increase for 2021-22 includes a $200 million increase to the fair funding formula, $20 million for Ready to Learn, a $50 million increase for special education, and a $30 million increase for early education, which includes $25 million to expand Pre-K Counts and $5 million to expand Head Start.

The $7 billion 2021-22 state budget also identified the state’s 100 most underfunded school districts. Those districts, the governor’s office announced, which will share a special pot of $100 million in extra education funds to help address the imbalance.

The 100 most underfunded school districts in Pennsylvania, according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, includes Lebanon School District. (leveluppa.org)

“This budget will help our state move forward and rebuild a strong, equitable economy that works for Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said. “It provides the largest education funding increase in state history so our students can get the education and training they need for good jobs and to enjoy a successful life in Pennsylvania. And it isn’t any ordinary increase in funding — it is new funding specifically and equitably targeted at the most underfunded districts that disproportionately serve students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities and English learners.”

The formula to distribute the $100 million was backed by a coalition of education advocacy organizations called Level Up.

According to the governor’s release, the amount of funding varies widely among schools, from $6.5 million for the Reading district in Berks County and $6.5 million for the Allentown district in Lehigh County to $174,057 for Mount Carmel in Northumberland County and $197,976 to Clairton City schools in Allegheny County.

Lebanon will receive $1,249,219 from the Level Up program for the 2021-22 academic year, the announcement says.

Abrom said the proposed budget for Lebanon in 2021-22 is just under $87 million. Of that, he said, about $50 million comes from state subsidies.

“The Level Up funds are not included in these numbers,” Abrom said.

Arthur Abrom, superintendent of Lebanon School District. Credit: (Twitter)

The district plans to use the Level Up money for staffing, the superintendent said. He also noted the money could be used toward planning a new middle school that would reduce the strain on existing buildings.

The new school, he said, would be built on the high school campus for 7th- and 8th-grade students. The project would also renovate the existing middle school, which currently houses grades 6 through 8, to eliminate 10 modular classrooms and, when finished, accommodate grades 5 and 6.

Bringing the 5th grade into the renovated middle school will resolve student capacity issues in the district’s five elementary schools, Abrom said.

“The additional Level Up funding will allow us to adequately staff the new school building and appropriately fund the positions for both an intermediate level and middle level programs,” he explained. Also, he noted, the new middle school will expand opportunities for middle school students to take high school-level courses.

“The financial concerns for additional staffing requirements as part of our new building plan are now greatly reduced by the increase in (basic education funding) with the sustainability of the Level Up funding,” Abrom said.

“The Level Up funding makes a significant impact on our quest for equity in educational spending in the state of PA,” he said, although he added that “we have still need to continue the fight, we have achieved a first down and we need additional first downs to score the touchdown.”

Even with the new investments, Gov. Wolf noted, school funding in Pennsylvania “remains unfair to many rural, suburban and urban school districts.”

Gov. Tom Wolf

“The state’s fair funding formula only applies to new investments since 2016, meaning about 85% of basic education funding is still distributed using student enrollment from 1992, without considering shifts in student population or school districts’ costs,” the press release from the governor’s office explains.

The governor, in his statement, said he is “disappointed that we could not find agreement with Republicans to direct all school funding through the bipartisan fair funding formula to help growing rural, suburban and urban school districts,” and he called the Level Up program a downpayment in the fight to provide “critical annual funding increases for the districts that need it most.”

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Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.