'I just need $5 million': Local schools superintendent, after Gov. Shapiro offers few details on budget talks for schools
SOUTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. — Gov. Josh Shapiro visited Allentown this week to highlight his proposal for more mental health funding in schools at Parkland High School and to celebrate the reopening of Valania Park near the intersection of Union and North 6th streets.
While in town, he gave an update on the state’s budget negotiations for education spending for the next fiscal year. But he didn’t offer many details, nor did he answer a question about whether he would support an increase in Level Up funding for the 100 poorest school districts in the state.
- Gov. Josh Shapiro gave a general update on state budget negotiations at Parkland High School this week
- He did not answer a question on more Level Up funding which benefits Allentown and Bethlehem Area School Districts
- Area Democrats say they support more funding, local Republican state Senator Jarrett Coleman says Pa. shouldn't bail out failing districts
Shapiro, who took office in January, put out his recommended budget in March. He’s proposed spending about $1 billion on education this fiscal year — with $567 million in basic education funding. That’s much less than what many education advocates had sought. There was no new Level Up funding — a supplement that has gone mostly to urban schools — in his budget proposal. He’s also asking for $500 million in mental health funding for schools over the next five years and up to $60 million a year in county mental funding by 2027-2028.
The Democratic-controlled state House could vote on its version of the budget as soon as next week when they return to session, which would move the action to the Republican-controlled Senate. Shapiro said his budget provides common sense solutions while making historic investments in education.
“I’ve had really constructive dialogue with Republican and Democratic leaders alike,” he said. “I think we are zeroing in on some points of compromise and where we have some disagreements, the approach I’m taking is ‘It’s ok to not like my idea, but what’s your idea.’”
“The governor knows where we stand on it. My leadership knows where we stand on it. We've all been extremely vocal on it. I think there's a very strong likelihood that Level Up will be included in the final budget proposal.”House Education Committee Chair Peter Schweyer
Retiring Bethlehem Schools Superintendent Joe Roy said recently he hasn’t heard a lot from Harrisburg about what’s happening with budget negotiations. He said he’s heard the governor’s operation is guarded on conversations with lawmakers.
“Everybody’s very tight lipped,” he said. “[Usually] by now, we’ve heard something. It may not be true, it may not be accurate, but we’ve heard some rumors.”
House Education Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, said Level Up dollars are an important component of education funding. Last year, the Allentown School District received $37 million in Level Up money under former Gov. Tom Wolf.
Schweyer said budget negotiations typically happen between the governor’s office, House and Senate leaders, but when he spoke to House leadership this week about education funding he said he stressed the value of Level Up.
“The governor knows where we stand on it,” he said. “My leadership knows where we stand on it. We've all been extremely vocal on it. I think there's a very strong likelihood that Level Up will be included in the final budget proposal.”
“I don’t believe it’s the state’s job to make up for mistakes that are made at the district level and the local school board level."State Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Lehigh.
Freshman state Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Lehigh, said the budget House Democrats send them could get a chilly reception in his chamber depending on how much they want to spend. He said he thinks the governor’s budget, which keeps Level Up funding at current amounts, is already too exorbitant. The area’s poorest school districts have mismanaged the money the state has already given them, he said. While he would not specify what district or districts he was referring to, Allentown and Bethlehem Area school districts are the only two which qualify for the Level Up program in this area.
“I don’t think the answer’s giving money to those failing school districts,” Coleman said. “I don’t believe it’s the state’s job to make up for mistakes that are made at the district level and the local school board level. I just don’t believe that.”
Right now, school districts are passing preliminary budgets and waiting to see what deal state officials strike. Bethlehem school board members approved a preliminary budget that shifts about $7 million from its fund balance, a kind of savings account, to cover its current shortfall. Roy said he’s trying to read the tea leaves to learn whether additional Level Up funds will make it in the final bill.
“I just need $5 million, that’s all,” Roy said. “Come on, get it done.”