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In Setback for Hurting Districts, Pa. House GOP Ditches Plan to End Budget Impasse

Pennsylvania House Republican leaders said this past weekend that they no longer support a plan many hoped would end a five-month budget stalemate that's forced the state's districts to take out millions of dollars in loans and cut longstanding after school programs to make up for the state revenue held up at the capitol.  

The state's legislature has been at odds with its governor since June over how to pay down a ballooning pension plan and hand millions more to its school system. Without a 2015-16 spending plan, the state is holding up millions of state tax revenue from local districts across the state.  

In the latest move, according to the Associated Press, House Republicans yesterday said they no longer support a plan earlier negotiated between the Democratic governor and Senate leaders that would spend $30.7 billion total and provide $350 million more to the state's public schools. (Here's a good explainer on Pennsylvania's school spending.) They instead support a much smaller spending plan and tax increase.

When I was interviewing folks for my story on this issue last month, several school officials in poor and rural districts warned that if the budget impasse goes into the new year, they'll be forced to take even more drastic measures to make up for the loss in revenue such as lay off teachers and increase class sizes. With this past weekend's setbacks, those measures are looking more likely. The governor has previously said that after legislatures vote on a spending plan, it will take another few weeks to vote the budget into law.  

The state's auditor general said last month that districts had taken out at least $346 million  in emergency loans by the end of October. That number has likely grown since then, a spokesperson from the department told me a few weeks ago. They're expected to release an updated figure early this month. 

Last week, that office said it would investigate the way the state's department of education is doling out money to charter schools during the impact. 

"The current education funding system often pits school districts and charter schools against each other,"  DePasquale said. "The budget stalemate is exacerbating already tense relationships between charters and districts in every region of the state, including Erie, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and York.

"When there are disagreements between public school districts and charter schools over tuition payments, the appeals process should be judicious, fair, timely, and understandable," Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said. 

The districts' budget woes seem to be putting at least some pressure on legislatures to come up with a resolution.  

"We just need to keep forging forward and if we have to make tweaks here and there to get it done, we will," Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman told the Associated Press. "But the most important thing is getting a budget done to get schools paid, to get social services paid and get public pension reform done that takes the commonwealth out of the risk business."

The Senate is expected to still vote on the plan today despite the setback in the House. 

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