SHENANGO VALLEY Forum targets funding for schools

The state has failed to live up to its commitment to pay 50 percent of public education costs.
WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. -- A wide representation of the community wants to see equity in state funding of schools, but making it happen could be very difficult.
That was the concensus of about 70 people who turned out Thursday for a forum on funding public education hosted by Shenango Valley Initiative at the Church of the Good Shepherd Parish Center.
SVI is a congregation-based organization formed to address the causes and solutions for community concerns.
Public schools: One of those concerns is the group's belief the state has failed to live up to its commitment to fund public schools, said Dr. Thomas Hawkins of SVI's education committee.
Pennsylvania provided 55 percent of the cost of public education in 1970 but that percentage has dropped to 35 per cent this year, according to Hawkins.
Response: School officials attending the meeting said they are hard-pressed to meet state education mandates that come from Harrisburg with no additional money to fund them.
"We are being asked to do more with less," said Dr. Derry Stufft, superintendent of the Sharpsville Area School District.
The state constitution mandates that the state pick up 50 percent of the cost, and the Legislature must be persuaded to increase funding, Hawkins said.
"It's that simple," he told the group.
State Rep. Michael Gruitza of Hermitage, D-7th, one of two state legislators at the meeting, disagreed.
"It's not a simple issue," he said, adding that it will take a lot of political courage to make local tax reform work and improve school funding.
Representative's contention: Gruitza said the Legislature has been a friend to public education even though the state's percentage of support has dropped as costs rose. It has opposed private school vouchers that would cause a drain on public school funds and is looking at the drain that cyber charter schools are causing, he said.
Not all schools are being shortchanged, he said, quoting some local statistics showing that districts with lower incomes get a better percentage of support from the state.
Farrell, one of the poorer districts, had 65 percent of its budget paid by the state last year while the state covered about 62 percent of Sharon's budget. By contrast, Hermitage, which has a much stronger local tax base, had only about 37 percent of its budget paid by the state.
Hawkins said the push isn't to reform local taxes but to get the state to increase what it allocates for public education.
Rep. Guy Travaglio of Butler, D-11th, didn't speak during the meeting but said later that he believes Pennsylvania should be paying 50 percent of the cost of public education and allow local school districts to reduce their tax loads correspondingly.
SVI and its sister organizations aren't waiting for something to happen. They're taking their case directly to Harrisburg and have organized a lobbying day in the state capitol for Oct. 17.

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