HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania School Boards Association asked a court in a lawsuit Friday to force the state to release money withheld from schools during the state budget impasse.
The association contends that state officials have acted arbitrarily in deciding which spending to allow after the fiscal year began July 1 without a state budget in place. After nearly six additional months of negotiation between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly, during which Pennsylvania schools went without funding, Mr. Wolf signed a partial budget that — after his use of line-item vetoes — pays districts through December.
Districts have been forced to borrow to keep schools open, with the state auditor general estimating that districts and intermediate units have borrowed $900 million.
The lawsuit by the PSBA, which says its membership includes nearly all of the state’s 500 school districts, claims the state government has “continued to operate essentially unimpeded by the lack of a budget,” while officials withheld state and federal money from schools.
The Wolf administration has said that during the budget impasse the state would make payments in areas “that affect the health, safety and protection of Pennsylvanians” or that were required by federal law, state court decisions or the state constitution. The PSBA lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court, maintains that “the continuity of public education is as important to the health, safety and welfare of the commonwealth as many of the other governmental programs and services that are being funded by the commonwealth despite the budget impasse.”
It asks for the release of federal and state money to school districts and also for damages to compensate for interest incurred and investment income lost because of the impasse.
“It is absolutely shameful that the state’s failure to pass a budget for the last six months has forced us to seek a remedy before the court,” PSBA executive director Nathan Mains said in a statement. “While our elected officials have continued to play politics with our state budget, school districts and all Pennsylvania students have been made to suffer. We will not sit idly by and wait for numerous school districts to run out of money and close their doors."
The lawsuit names as respondents Mr. Wolf, the General Assembly, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera and Treasurer Timothy Reese.
Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesman for Mr. Wolf, said in a statement that blame for the lack of funding lies with Republican legislative leaders. Increasing school funding has been a priority for Mr. Wolf. In December, the Senate approved a budget with education levels supported by the governor, but that plan did not pass the House.
“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,” Mr. Sheridan said. “Gov. Wolf shares PSBA’s frustration and wants the Republican Legislature to return to Harrisburg now to finish their work.”
Aides to Republican leaders countered by noting that they sent Mr. Wolf a full-year budget in June and a short-term budget in September, both of which he vetoed, before the December budget that he reduced through line-item vetoes.
“The decision to hold kids as pawns in the budget negotiation process has been solely up to the governor, and the decision to withhold this funding was solely at the point of his veto pen,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman to Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.
“Right now schools are struggling because of Tom Wolf’s actions, because of Tom Wolf’s obstinance,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.
A Treasury spokesman said Mr. Reese had no comment.
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 717-787-2141.
First Published January 8, 2016 10:07 AM