Matthew Ulmer is worried history may repeat itself and saddle school districts across Pennsylvania with yet another state budget crisis.
“I’m a first-year business manager,” he told Pedro Rivera before asking the state secretary of education. “Are you concerned there may be just as long of an impasse next year?”
“It’s always a concern,” Rivera responded, adding how the 2015-2016 budget stalemate was about as bad as it gets. That crisis was only recently resolved after funding shortfalls reached the point where some school districts were looking to close their doors.
Ulmer was hired last August as operations and business manager for South Middleton School District. He was among the district administrators who met with the secretary Tuesday afternoon.
Rivera visited Boiling Springs as part of his “Schools that Teach” tour of districts statewide. He briefed staff, faculty, school board members and student representatives on key elements of Gov. Tom Wolf’s education budget proposal for 2016-2017.
One goal of the tour is to gauge what is happening statewide in education by visiting a variety of school districts across Pennsylvania, Rivera said. He said the visits help to solidify the thinking going forward while welcoming new ideas on how to proceed.
A press advisory announcing his Tuesday visit mentioned how Pennsylvania “is at a critical crossroads: fund our schools and fix the deficit or face an additional $1 billion in cuts to education.”
“We are looking to make a significant investment,” Rivera said, adding how increased education funding is a priority of the governor along with balancing the state budget.
The education budget proposal calls for $200 million more in the basic education subsidy, $60 million more for early childhood education programs, $15 million for innovation grants, $8 million for career and college guidance counselors and $5 million for updated technology equipment.
Superintendent Al Moyer asked Rivera about the prospect of South Middleton School District receiving state reimbursement in 2016-2017 for the ongoing renovation and expansion project at the Iron Forge Educational Center and for a renovation project planned for the W.G. Rice Elementary School. Moyer said the district followed all the protocols and submitted all the required PlanCon documents in time to have the projects qualify for future reimbursement.
The proposed education budget includes the same amount of PlanCon money allocated in 2015-2016, Rivera said. He added the state would only be able to draw down funds if the allocation is approved.
Moyer also asked about the likelihood of there being future state grants available to support the pre-school program South Middleton recently implemented using a federal grant. The concern is the district may not be able financially to set aside enough money to continue the program once current grant funds dry out, Moyer said.
The funding being proposed for early childhood education will only serve about 40 percent of the children living in poverty who qualify for programs, Rivera said.
School boards statewide are struggling to cope with dramatic increases in health care costs and in the contribution districts make to the state retirement system. To contain health care costs, the Wolf administration supports helping school districts and intermediate units form consortiums to spread the burden, Rivera said.
As for the pension crisis, the governor supports the creation of a restricted fund for the system so that the money is not used for any other purpose, Rivera said. He added the majority of the liability is not for current district employees but for those who have already retired and are drawing a pension.
The average retiree receives about $25,000 a year, not the $60,000 to $100,000 some in the public believe, Rivera said. Moyer welcomed the opportunity to be briefed on the budget and to ask questions.
“One thing I really appreciate is the new culture and the altitude I have seen at the Department of Education,” the superintendent said. “I get the feeling there is a true appreciation for hearing what we have to say … that our voices are important. There is real embracing of a teamwork approach.”