EXETER — State Sen. John Yudichak on Wednesday criticized fellow Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf — as well as legislators on both sides of the political aisle — in analyzing the state budget impasse, and tried to assure area residents that the state would release education funding before any schools would be forced to close.
Yudichak, of Plymouth Township, was one of several panel members at an informational forum at Wyoming Area Secondary Center that was called to explain the effects of the state budget impasse on the district. A couple hundred concerned residents, parents, teachers and students packed the school cafeteria at the open invitation of district officials.
As of Wednesday, the state had gone 249 days without a complete state budget approved by the governor. Only about 44 percent of state subsidies have been released to school districts for the current school year.
“I’m not happy with the governor, I’m not happy with Democrats and I’m not happy with Republicans. This has gone on too long. This is, without question, a manufactured crisis,” Yudichak said.
“We do have a state budget — not a budget that I supported or voted for, because I don’t think it did enough to fund not only education, but environmental protection, job creation and so many other things that we need to invest in Pennsylvania, but we do have a budget. So when you read news accounts that we don’t have a budget, that’s incorrect,” he said.
Yudichak said there’s $2.8 billion in school funding sitting in Harrisburg waiting to be released, and a complete budget doesn’t have to be passed to release that funding.
“I criticized the governor this week for having the Department of Education send out a notice and a tool kit on ‘How to Close Your School.’ I think that was a bad idea. I think that’s why you’re all in the room today. I think it was a bit of misguided political theater” because the administration this week instructed the treasurer to pay bills of the Department of Corrections, funding for which Wolf also issued a veto, Yudichak said.
The senator said the reason why only about 44 percent of school districts’ state subsidies were released to them is complicated.
Yudichak said Wolf decided to “blue-line veto” the budget, or release funds only for certain parts of the budget, “to get a leverage point in the budget conversation and force the Republicans back to the table” (on increasing education funding). He said the budget presented to Wolf was not negotiated by leaders of both political parties, but rather by Republican majority leaders, and it was passed by a Republican majority.
He said Wolf vetoed a portion of the budget, “hoping we could get to an agreement. And in the Senate, we did. We passed a bi-partisan budget — $30.8 billion — that drove $375 million in new money into our public school system.”
The Senate also did one other important thing — it passed a bi-partisan pension reform bill to diminish the need for local school property tax increases, he said.
When the two bills went to the House, “not a single House Democrat voted to support the pension reform, a lot of Republicans didn’t support the pension reform bill, and, as a result of the pension reform bill dying in the House, the budget bill collapsed.”
The latest budget
House Republicans passed a new spending plan Wednesday, he noted, and some Democrats are supporting it because, even though they’re not satisfied with the level of funding, they’re frustrated and don’t want to see any schools close for lack of funding.
Yudichak said Republicans tout that the budget bill that passed the Senate and the House on Wednesday increases the basic education subsidy by $200 million, which he said “sounds like a good deal” because it’s half of what the governor wanted and people people might say “Take the deal and move on.”
“But what they don’t tell you is they’re cutting $300 million out of (planned school construction funding),” Yudichak said, noting that Wilkes-Barre Area School District’s proposal for a newly constructed $100 million high school “would fall on the backs of local taxpayers” rather than the state paying “a fair share” of the construction project funding.
“Without that PlanCon money, that $200 million is not really $200 million,” Yudichak said.
Still, Yudichak said, if Wolf vetoed the bill, he would vote to override the veto.
Good till June
Prior to Yudichak speaking, residents also heard from Secondary Center Principal Vito Quaglia, Superintendent Janet Serino, Business Manager Tom Melone, School Board President Elizabeth Gober-Mangan, Solicitor Jarrett Ferentino and Wolf’s Northeast District Director Cassandra Coleman-Corcoran, who is also a Wyoming Area graduate.
Melone told the audience the district had enough funds to remain financially solvent until the end of May and “will be challenged through June.”
Just about all of the speakers stressed the importance of contacting their elected state officials to impress upon them their concerns. Some recommended joining the Parent Advocacy Network supported by the Pennsylvania School Board Association.
During a question-and-answer session, more than a dozen residents spoke at the podium, either asking questions or simply stating their opinions.
One man criticized Wolf for wanting to increase education funding. Met with boos from some in the audience, he said education spending should be cut.
Luzerne resident Brian Tokar asked why the remainder of the state education subsidy shouldn’t be released now.
“No argument here,” Yudichak replied.
Among the last to speak was senior Victoria Mattioli and senior class President Ashley Lamoreaux.
Mattioli said the senior class has been working to come up with plans in case the school did shut down. “I just want the parents to know, it’s OK to relax. I know our class. We will work together.”
Mattioli urged parents and students who want to see funding released “to fight for it. There’s Twitter, there’s Facebook, there’s newspapers. You can find these people and you can really, really push it.”
Lamoreaux said she thought she could speak on behalf of all the seniors when she said that “we care about our education and that’s it’s absolutely disgusting that some (legislators) and as you saw earlier, some people in this room think that it’s a good idea to cut education. We are the future of this country,” Lamoreaux said.
“People think that we’re not politically educated, but we are. We’re voting … and we care,” she said.
Reach Steve Mocarsky at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @TLSteveMocarsky.