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Millions in Lehigh Valley school aid still on hold despite end to Pa. budget stalemate

Bethlehem Area School District building
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
The Bethlehem Area School District building on Sycamore Street in June 2023.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Gov. Josh Shapiro's signature on a budget bill Thursday signaled the end to a month-long state budget impasse in Harrisburg.

The state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, went back into session this week to finish most of the bill, ensuring that $1.1 billion in basic education funding for public schools this month won’t be delayed.

  • The signed budget means basic education funding to school districts will arrive on time this month
  • Level Up and mental health funding, however, is still being held up
  • The state House must create legislation directing how the money will be spent

But the Shapiro administration and Senate Republicans said the state House still needs to write a fiscal code that directs how some of the money in the budget should be spent. That includes Level Up funding for the state’s 100 poorest school districts and school mental health grants.

In the Lehigh Valley, Allentown and Bethlehem Area school districts are the only two that receive Level Up funding.

Bethlehem schools Superintendent Jack Silva said the district expects to receive about $1.85 million in Level Up and mental health funding.

“But overall, the good news is that the basic education funding and the state reimbursements will start to flow,” he said. “We budgeted back in May and June for 85% of the governor's proposal.

"So now that the budget is getting a little bit closer, it looks like we'll probably in the end receive about an additional $900,000 in basic education funding and supplemental funding.”

State Sen. Nick Miller, D-Lehigh/Northampton and a former Allentown School Board member, said the Level Up program is important to Allentown. He added that additional state funding allowed the district to keep property tax rates flat for this fiscal year.

"The Level Up fund dollars are crucial and critically needed, especially in school districts like Allentown," he said. "So I'm going to continue to advocate for it and work with my colleagues."

“I don't think we should be using the budgetary process to put our constituents, particularly our most vulnerable folks, really in a hostage situation."
Rep. Joshua Seigel, D-Lehigh

State Rep. Joshua Siegel, D-Lehigh, said the mental health funding also on hold is vital as youth are facing an emotional health crisis.

“I don't think we should be using the budgetary process to put our constituents, particularly our most vulnerable folks, really in a hostage situation,” he said. “We should not be holding them victims of the process.”

House Democrats lost their one-seat majority last month when state Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, resigned to run for Allegheny county executive. A special election is planned for next month.

Siegel said he’s not worried the 101-101 split in the House will make it harder to pass a fiscal code and create a pathway for the Level Up and mental health dollars to flow.

“I think each member has a compelling incentive to work and make the process constructive,” he said. “The fiscal code is really the opportunity for legislators to make sure that respective interests or priorities in their districts are being funded, whether that's infrastructure or school refurbishment, particular nonprofits, or a particular cause. The fiscal code is really the vehicle by which we as members have an opportunity to make sure that our districts get the resources that they deserve and need.”

Lawmakers boosted education spending in this year’s fiscal budget by more than $700 million over last year. It’s the first budget since a landmark Commonwealth Court ruling earlier this year found the state unconstitutionally underfunds poor school districts.

Some advocates have shown disappointment. The Public Interest Law Center and Education Law Center, which represented the school districts in the lawsuit, said this year’s budget needed to do more to change the “status quo.”

In early July, Shapiro line-item vetoed $100 million for school vouchers, which has been the source of dispute between the two parties in the Legislature for weeks.

Senate Republicans claimed the move was a betrayal by Shapiro, who had backed the private school vouchers — called lifeline scholarships —only to abandon the proposal to win support from House Democrats on the budget.