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State budget impasse means Lehigh Valley schools must wait for funding

Easton High School
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
This is a school bus at Easton Area High School, Easton, Pennsylvania. Picture made in May, 2023.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- The state budget impasse could delay funding to Lehigh Valley schools if it lasts until September or longer. The due date for the fiscal plan was June 30th.

That could mean local schools will face draining their resources to continue operations, issue payroll and meet other financial obligations. Officials with some districts said they currently have enough reserves. The first payments to schools are typically disbursed by the state around late August or early September, according to state lawmakers who represent the Lehigh Valley.

  • School districts may have to rely on reserves for operations and payroll because of the state budget impasse
  • Some district officials are concerned about school voucher funding in the current version of the budget
  • Shapiro has promised to veto the voucher money, angering Senate Republicans

The House and Senate approved a budget that Gov. Josh Shapiro has said he will sign, but it contains $100 million for controversial tuition vouchers. Shapiro made a deal to include a form of vouchers, called Lifeline Scholarships, with Senate Republicans. The scholarships would allow students from the lowest-performing schools to use public money to attend a nonpublic school. But now he's vowed to line-item veto the vouchers after blowback from House Democrats, who only agreed to sign off on the budget with that promise.

No end in sight

Senate Republican leaders must sign the budget bill before it can go to the governor, but a recent letter from Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman to House Democratic Leader Matthew Bradford made it clear they are not planning to come back to Harrisburg anytime soon. As of Friday, the Senate was not officially scheduled to return to Harrisburg until Sept. 18.

“The Senate sees little value in returning to session and allowing House Bill 611 to reach the Governor’s desk without addressing the remaining work needed to implement a budget,” Pittman’s letter said.

Pittman said the House needs to draft implementing language in the form of a fiscal code, for some of the appropriations in the spending bill, such as basic education and Level Up funding. Lawmakers agreed to a basic education and special education funding increase of more than $700 million this year, plus $100 million in Level Up money, which goes to the state’s 100 poorest school districts.

Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, said he doesn't think the impasse will last until September. He added that while the House needs to create a fiscal code, he disagrees with Pittman’s assertion that basic education funding for the new fiscal year would go down by $550 million without one.

“We've passed school codes in the past,” he said. “It would certainly be previous precedent that both the House and the Senate have passed an identical budget that is literally just waiting on a signature. I don't think that's the case.”

District reserves on the line

Easton Area School Board President Meg Sayago said she’s not worried about Easton running out of money if the impasse lasts into September. She said she is concerned about the budget including the Lifeline Scholarships, despite Shapiro’s pledge to remove them.

“Gov. Shapiro very much put [vouchers] on the table as part of this process, and so you know, now we have to rely on him saying that he will line-item veto it.”
Easton Area School Board President Meg Sayago

“Gov. Shapiro very much put [vouchers] on the table as part of this process, and so you know, now we have to rely on him saying that he will line-item veto it,” she said. “But, you know, there's still a lot that has to be finalized in this budget. And if, you know, it could be an item that ends up being left in in order to keep the budget process moving and to get a final document. So, you know, I would be less concerned if it was an item that he had not come out in favor of, but he did.”

State Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Lehigh, said many Senate Republicans are upset about Shapiro’s reversal on tuition vouchers.

“We should be able to trust that when a governor says something, regardless of what they're saying, whether you like it or not that,” he said. “I think as Pennsylvanians, we should know that the governor is going to do what he says. And so it's very disheartening that he went back against his word. But I think that's why we're where we are now."

Under the budget deal, Allentown is projected to get an additional $21.7 million over last year’s budget. Of its $464 million budget for this new fiscal year, more than half of that, $278.5 million, comes from the state.

In an emailed statement, Allentown schools Superintendent Carol Birks said the district has worked to reduce spending and has enough reserves.

“Our district is actively exploring all available options to mitigate the possible impact to our students and staff,” Birks said. “We are working closely with our local legislative representatives and advocating for the urgent resolution of this budget impasse.”

Nazareth Area School District Superintendent Richard Kaskey said in an email the budget impasse would not impact the district unless it lasts for months.