School districts have said the governor’s six months of emergency funding just won’t cut it and now one prominent education group is asking the court to do something about it.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which represents over 4,500 elected school officials across the state, says it will file a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court asking for the “continued timely release” of state subsidies to districts.
PSBA alleges the state’s withholding of funds violates both state and federal constitutions and has forced districts to borrow almost $1 billion just to keep doors open. The lawsuit seeks damages for the interest charges and other fees incurred by those schools since the year began in August.
According to court documents, PSBA believes the state budget impasse violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment because it funded state government without sending any aid to school districts. The association also claims federal law “requires the timely payment of federal pass-through funds even in the event a budget impasse by the state.”
In a statement PSBA Executive Director Nathan Mains called the state’s inaction “shameful” and promised not to “sit idly by” while schools run out of money and shut down.
“This is not a House versus Senate issue, nor a Republican versus Democrat issue,” he said. “What we are witnessing is a complete failure of our state government to fulfill its constitutional duty to ensure that the education of our children is not interrupted. We are hopeful that the court will be able to step in and provide a remedy so that Pennsylvania school districts and the children they serve are not made to suffer any further.”
Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, said the governor “shares PSBA’s frustration,” but continued to cast blame on GOP leaders for not returning to session after the partial budget veto on Dec. 29.
“Governor Wolf has been fighting for historic increases in education funding at all levels since day one, but unfortunately Republican leaders have stood in the way,” he said. “Republican leaders would rather continue the failed status quo that resulted in devastating cuts to school districts that led to massive educator layoffs, increased class sizes and soaring property taxes. Last week, the governor vetoed the Republicans’ $95 million cut to education while ensuring emergency funding went out to schools through December 31st. Republican leaders left town for vacation before Christmas and have not returned to finish the work they left incomplete, including historic increases to education at all levels. Governor Wolf shares PSBA’s frustration and wants the Republican legislature to return to Harrisburg now to finish their work.”
Legislative Republicans aren’t taking the administration’s latest rhetoric lying down.
“We are reviewing the lawsuit at this point and will defend the role of the General Assembly in the budgeting process,” said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Caucus. “An important point to consider is that three times we have passed budgets that would have given school districts hundreds of millions of dollars in new money to continue educating our children. Three times the governor has chosen to use kids as pawns. The lawsuit is further evidence that while the governor continues to travel the state working from talking points, the ongoing decisions to deny school funding affects children and their education.”
GOP leaders have also poked holes in the administration’s $95 million cut claim, insisting that it was the governor who cut $3 billion from public schools when he blue-lined $6 billion in spending from the budget sent to him last month.
Steve Robinson, a PSBA spokesman, said the organization is “grateful” that some state aid has been released, but says the lawsuit isn’t just about the money.
“I believe everyone was hopeful the state would work things out. It certainly would not have made sense to file such a suit on July 2,” he said. “We are grateful that state money has begun to flow to schools, but one goal of the suit is to make sure funds continue to flow and that this does not happen again in the event of another budget impasse. Additionally, schools will be out of a lot of interest and expenses as a result of the nearly $1 billion borrowed. That is money owed to districts and their taxpayers.”
Wolf has said he would support state reimbursement for districts’ borrowing costs, but so far no legislation — or budget line items — have materialized to make the concept a reality.