May 18, 2012 | By | Posted in General News

Week in Review: What to fund, and how, in public education, internal agencies

Records show lawmakers spending $470K in food, event expenses
By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — Funding for public education is one topic sure to stir controversy during budget season, often pitting local districts against state lawmakers in arguments of how much to spend, where to spend it, and how to spend it.

This week, PA Independent took a look at how much school districts have on hand, as well as what new, creative ways are under consideration to fill the gaps.
Meanwhile, the state examines how its own agencies can do more with less in a variety of departments — such as the prison system — while lawmakers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on food for their staffs and their constituents.
PA school districts debate best use of $3.2B in reserve
School districts across the state have been stashing billions of tax dollars in reserve funds, hesitant to tap into their fund balances, even in the face of rising costs.
As of June 30 last year, school districts statewide were sitting on more than $3.2 billion above what was needed to pay expenses for the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to Department of Education statistics. The same data show the total amount in the reserve accounts has nearly tripled, from $1.1 billion in 1996-97 to more than $3.2 billion last year. At the same time, state spending on public education has increased from about $13 billion to about $26 billion.
But some schools are hesitant to dip into those funds when considering the coming increases in pension costs for public school employees.
For example, at East Stroudsburg School District, its $34 million fund balance is one of the largest among the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania. But that reserve will not be tapped to help close an expected $10 million shortfall in a proposed $143 million budget, says district business manager Patricia Bader.
“We didn’t want to go into that, because the future looks as bleak as this year,” Bader said.
Gov. Tom Corbett‘s administration, meanwhile, is encouraging districts with large reserve funds — like East Stroudsburg — to dip into those accounts to cover operating expenses in a year when state education funding is increasing, but not as much as districts would like.
Proposed budget cuts neuter internal watchdogs
A look at Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget for 2012-13 shows some internal watchdog agencies aren’t receiving as much as they have in the past.
Some of the cuts follow a trend of decreases. The Department of the Auditor General, for example, received funding at a seven-year high of $54.4 million in 2008 — next year, it’s proposed at $42.3 million. Auditor General Jack Wagner says he’s seen his staff decrease from 755 to 600 since 2005, and a corresponding decrease of 10 percent to 15 percent in the number of annual audits.
The Office of Open Records, created to uphold the Right-to-Know law and handle records request appeals, would receive flat funding at $1.174 million. But in a show of support for the four-year-old office’s ever-growing operation, the Senate’s budget allocates $1.35 million.
But the governor’s office says holding the line or cutting funding for these agencies has nothing to do with their particular services. It’s about doing more with less, as all departments must do, said spokesman Eric Shirk.
“We have to take a bigger look with this budget,” Shirk said. “What we’re looking to do is keep the spending in order.”
Lawmakers spent $470K on meals, munchies
Sometimes the events are large — such as the 2011 Philadelphia Community Service Award hosted by Sen. Shirley Kitchen, D-Philadelphia, with a $5,100 tab. Other line items are smaller, right down to coffee for $1.50 a cup.
Russ Faber, chief clerk of the Senate, has to determine on a case-by-case basis what exactly counts as a legitimate legislative expense.
"Obviously, one of the major criteria is to determine that the activity is not personal or campaign related," Faber said.
All told, state senators and their staff racked up more than $200,000 on meals and “consumable supplies” such as coffee, soda and snacks during the 2010-11 fiscal year. In the state House, various line items for meals and other food expenses totaled nearly $270,000 for the year.
Some say the principle behind the expenses matters more than the dollar amounts. Eric Epstein, founder of Rock The Capitol, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit that advocates for government reforms, said these types of events are little more than expensive public service announcements.
Districts consider advertising in school buses to bring in more revenue
As costs grow and tax increases become less palatable, Pennsylvania school districts could begin targeting young consumers with ads in school buses to make money.
The cash generated does not amount to a windfall, but every little bit can help at a time when state and local funding is decreasing. Upper Moreland School District, for example, expects to generate about $25,000 annually from ads in its fleet of 50 school buses and vans.
Ads in buses could be a direct reaction to a change in state education funding policy. In the past, the state distributed to the districts a specific subsidy that covered busing. This year, Gov. Tom Corbett proposed rolling that line item — along with the basic education subsidy and payments for retired teachers — into a single budget line, to be called the Student Achievement Block Grant.
The block grants, Corbett explained in his February budget address, would allow districts to spend that money as they see fit. If districts can generate enough revenue from advertising to pay for busing, they can free up some of those state dollars for other purposes.
Federal EPA rules Dimock, PA, water is safe; contamination not caused by gas drilling
The federal Environmental Protection Agency announced its determination that methane-laced well water in Dimock Township was not contaminated by natural gas drilling.
The town in Susquehanna County received national attention for its contaminated water in the 2010 documentary “Gasland,” stirring opposition to gas drilling nationwide. Homeowners began complaining of methane in their water wells after Cabot Oil and Gas, a national firm that drills for natural gas and oil, started tapping the Marcellus shale formation beneath the town in 2009.
But after a three-month investigation, the EPA concluded the methane was not the result of gas drilling.
Former PA school nears sale after three years
After being vacant for three years, there might be a way for the state to sell off the Scotland School for Veterans Children in Franklin County.
The Ohio-based Winebrenner Theological Seminary approached the state to buy the property as part of its expansion into the mid-Atlantic region.
The school is valued at $5 million, according to the Department of General Services. Since the school’s closure, the department has paid an estimated total of $5.6 million to maintain the property, according to DGS figures. Maintenance kept the property from losing value or becoming the target of vandalism, DGS spokeswoman Holly Lubart said.
Property sales like this one are a steadily growing source of revenue for the state. In 2011, the state made $25.1 million from selling 19 properties. That’s more than triple what it made in 2010 when it sold off 10 properties for $7.5 million.
Bipartisan group calls for PA prison reform to save money
A new coalition composed of public and private officials is calling for changes to the state’s prison system.
The group met at the Capitol on Monday to unveil its recommendations for implementing new policies for the Department of Corrections — which is 105 percent capacity — that mimic those in other states.
At the core of the reform is the goal of saving taxpayer dollars from a system labeled inefficient, and keeping former inmates from returning to that system. Estimates from free market think tank the Commonwealth Foundation presented at Monday's panel say it annually costs taxpayers $66 million to support about 1,900 inmates who qualify for parole but remain behind bars.
Even when parole is granted, a three-month, pre-release costs about $9,000 per inmate. 
The group includes DOC Secretary John Wetzel, who says the system no longer works.
“We’re just looking at what we have, and what we have control over, and finding ways to do it better with what we have, if not less,” Wetzel said.
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