HARRISBURG - School officials looking to Harrisburg for budget guidance likely have whiplash from the conflicting correspondence issuing from the Capitol.

First, Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a budget in which he called for a $500 million boost in school spending. Wolf then spent weeks taking his school plan to the schools to ensure that everyone hears how he wants to fill teaching jobs and cut class sizes.

The governor’s plan irked Republicans. Not only does it tax the natural gas drilling industry, it increases sales and income taxes.

Republican leaders in the Senate promptly sat down and penned a note to local school leaders urging them not to plan on getting as much money as the governor suggested.

This week the Wolf administration sent another letter to schools reiterating the $500 million pledge. And, oh, by the way, acting Education Secretary Pedro Rivera added that schools have until May 15 to notify Harrisburg how they plan to spend Wolf’s millions.

Republicans were not amused.

Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, dismissed the mandate as a “political stunt.”

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said Wolf is asking schools to explain how they will spend money that the state doesn’t have.

“Asking the districts to jump through hoops to provide plans for money that is part of a massive proposed overall budget burden is a waste of valuable time and resources that should be dedicated to educating children,” Corman said.

And, for good measure, House Republicans decided to write a letter, too. They addressed it to Wolf but sent copies to each school district. In it they asked the governor to retract his order that schools explain how they intend to spend the windfall.

“Accountability for the spending of state education dollars is certainly a laudable goal, but it is a goal that should be put forth at the conclusion of our constitutional budget process with the appropriate legal standing. That day will come, but it is not now,” read the letter signed jointly by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, and House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County.

The biggest reason that school folks want a predictable funding formula from the state is that it presumably will push out money in a fair manner.

Another benefit is that it would greatly cut down on the guesswork that comes from trying to plan while reading mixed signals from the state’s politicians, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Board Association.

“This is definitely an illustration of why a fair funding formula is needed,” Robinson said Thursday. “Districts are forced to put their budgets together in the dark. They feel caught in the middle.”

Fortunately - or unfortunately - school leaders should know better than to look to Harrisburg before the budget is passed in June.

But that means they must do their own budgeting without knowing how much they'll get from a pot that contributes, on average, 36 percent of their money.

Robinson said school officials are "cautiously optimistic" that an education funding commission will devise with a formula that works.

It won't come in time to help for the next school year. But it could make things easier next spring, at least by eliminating some of the mixed signals that complicate a planning process that affects 1.8 million students.

-- John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. E-mail him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter: @cnhipa.


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