Lancaster County’s two poorest school districts were left out of a combined $1.5 million in the latest batch of federal coronavirus relief, expanding funding inequities at a time when school districts with high percentages of low-income students needed it most, according to a new report.
Because the latest batch of federal coronavirus aid was distributed based on enrollment, not poverty, school districts with the most need received less than they should have compared to their more affluent peers, the report states.
The report, published Monday by the Keystone Research Center, a left-leaning think tank based in Harrisburg, suggests the funding should have flowed through Pennsylvania’s basic education funding formula, which the state uses to fund new money to school districts each year and considers poverty and other factors.
If state lawmakers opted to distribute the emergency funds this way, the report states School District of Lancaster would have received $2.3 million instead of $850,000, and Columbia Borough School District would have gotten $359,000 rather than $217,000.
School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau said she appreciates the funding the district received, but additional relief “would have meant less of a strain on our general budget.”
On Tuesday night, the district revealed it’s facing a $13.7 million budget deficit in the upcoming year. Rau, in an email Thursday, said the district anticipates about 65% of COVID-19 expenses will be covered by federal emergency aid.
“We continue to advocate that the state allocate education funding in a more equitable way,” she said, “including using the basic education funding formula.”
Columbia Borough interim Superintendent Gregory McGough declined to comment because the district is undergoing a leadership transition.
“Given the nation’s heightened awareness in the year 2020 of inequality, especially racial injustice, these are stunning findings,” the report said.
Lancaster and Columbia Borough school districts are the poorest in the county, with 91% and 66%, respectively, of students considered economically disadvantaged. They also have the highest percentages of Black and Hispanic students.
The first and largest batch of federal relief — $470 million — used a formula based on Title I, or the percentage of children from low-income households.
Instead of using the basic education funding or Title I formula, the state Legislature voted in June as part of the annual school code legislation to send the second batch of relief — $175 million in safety and security grants — to school districts in a way that disregards poverty.
Every school district got a baseline amount of $120,000; additional funding was based on enrollment.
“The purpose of setting that baseline amount was to protect smaller school districts, ensuring that they received a sufficient amount to assist with COVID-19 health and safety mitigation,” Neal Lesher, spokesman for the state House Appropriations Committee, said in an email provided by a spokesperson for Republican state House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler. “The rest of the funding was distributed based on the per pupil membership of the district, as the need for cleaning, PPE, technology and other expenses logically grows with the size of the district.
Governor, lawmakers react
The state House voted 191-0 in support of distributing the money that way. The state Senate voted 44-6. No Lancaster County lawmaker voted against it.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, in an email said Wolf “has always supported additional education funding through the Fair Funding Formula.” Kensinger told the Philadelphia Inquirer this week that the governor let the school code legislation pass “in the spirit of compromise” with the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument and a spokesperson for Aument’s fellow Republican state senator, Scott Martin, said they would have to look into any issues with the distribution.
“I have been an advocate over the years of tying our funding formula more closely to student enrollment,” Aument said. “Having said this, just as I have advocated for including poverty as a factor in our statewide teacher evaluation system, I believe it must also be a factor in our funding formula to school districts.”
Mike Sturla, Lancaster County’s lone Democratic state representative, said he is “hoping upon hope” for at least one or two more federal stimulus packages so school districts can get the support they need.
“I believe that every crisis presents an opportunity, and, in this particular case, I think we turned the crisis into a disaster,” he said. “Instead, we said, ‘Hey, it’s just easy to distribute (funding) in a way that doesn’t make any sense.’ ”
Sturla said there was a sense of urgency in June when voting for the school code.
“In some cases, it’s like, vote yes so you could live to fight another day.”