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School Districts Squeezed By Pennsylvania's Budget Impasse


In Pennsylvania, a very tardy state budget has school districts in trouble because they depend on state dollars to open their doors. Some districts are sacrificing programs or taking out loans. Laura Benshoff, from member station WHYY, has this story from Chester-Upland, a school district outside of Philadelphia where the staff is working without pay.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: The day before students return, special education teacher Dariah Jackson is putting the finishing touches on her classroom at Stetser Elementary School.

DARIAH JACKSON: You get the construction paper, and it has letters A through Z.

BENSHOFF: She's almost done decoration her bulletin board with mantras and teaching aids.

JACKSON: Then I have a display here - lights, camera, action, we are learning with Ms. Jackson. So that's where I'm going to post students' samples of work.

BENSHOFF: Like a lot of teachers, Jackson pays for many of her classroom materials out of pocket. Unlike a lot of teachers, she doesn't know when she'll see her first paycheck this year. With no state funds trickling down to schools, last week, district officials told staff they couldn't make payroll. The staff voted to come back to work anyway.

JACKSON: When we first made the decision, it's like, wait, did we just say that? But we know what we're doing. Like, we've done this before.

BENSHOFF: The Chester-Upland School District has been financially distressed for 25 years, and this isn't the first time it's run out of money, but it is the first time the state hasn't been in a position to bail them out. That leaves districts where money is tight, like Chester-Upland, in a holding pattern, says Jackson.

JACKSON: I mean, we're first in line, but, you know, who's behind us? There's a lot of school districts that's right behind us, so it's tough (laughter). It's tough.

BENSHOFF: Philadelphia is in the process of taking out a $275 million loan to pay for some of its expenses. Another school district cut payments to charter schools while waiting for the state budget. Earlier this year, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf tried to push through a budget that would have added $400 million to education funding, while also taxing things like shale gas drilling. The legislature unanimously rejected Wolf's budget. In return, Wolf vetoed a Republican-authored plan. Steve Miskin is a spokesman for the House Republican caucus.

STEVE MISKIN: The hardest hit right now are those most reliant of state federal dollars. And they're the ones, you know, that the governor's full veto is hitting them smack on the chin.

BENSHOFF: Supporters of the governor's budget say it was necessary to restore dwindling education dollars. Here's Jeff Sheridan, a spokesman for Governor Wolf.

JEFF SHERIDAN: The governor's budget proposal took a hugely important first step in restoring the funds that were cut by Republicans over the last four years.

BENSHOFF: State leaders on both sides say they're sorry, but it's the other guy's fault that teachers aren't getting paid.

Back in Chester-Upland, the staff has banded together to put on a happy face for students. Kevin Thomas does maintenance and videography for the district.

KEVIN THOMAS: It's not just affecting me. It's affecting - you know, you affect the bus drivers, crossing guards, custodians, maintenance workers. So if the teachers aren't getting paid, it's all of us.

BENSHOFF: He says the reality won't kick in until payday comes next week. And anyway, he's got grass to cut before students return. For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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