Pa. constitution holding back federal money for schools

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania's 500 school districts have hundreds of millions of dollars addressed to them from the federal government currently being held by the state government. According to Governor Tom Wolf, the schools will not see this money unless a state budget is passed.

Gov. Wolf cited the Pennsylvania Constitution on Wednesday, saying, "With the exception of organizations that deal with emergency services and deal with the health and welfare of the population," federal dollars cannot be released without the approval of the General Assembly and state budget in place.

The governor's office also cited Act 117 of 1976, which reads:

"...the State Treasurer is hereby specifically prohibited from issuing any warrant for requisitioned funds which were derived, in whole or in part, from Federal funds unless such funds have been specifically appropriated by an act of the General Assembly.”

However, nowhere in the Act are emergency services, health and welfare issues mentioned. When asked on Wednesday if disabled children in schools fall under "health and welfare," the Governor again cited the constitution.

"We're doing our best to interpret the constitution of Pennsylvania and are dispensing funds with how we think is consistent with the constitution," he said.

On Tuesday, Wolf signed off on the release of federal funds designated for domestic violence shelters across the commonwealth. Wednesday marked the 155th day of the state budget impasse.

Tuesday's federal funding release sparked more questions for school districts, which are wondering why they have been unable to receive money which they believe is rightfully theirs. Pennsylvania is slated to receive over $500 million for Title I federal funding, according to estimated figures from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. This is money which is earmarked for low income, disenfranchised, and disabled student programs. Harrisburg School District will receive between $10 and $11 million, estimates Bill Gretton, the school district's acting chief financial officer.

"Although the state is monitoring the use of those funds," Gretton said, "those funds have already been designated for programs already approved by the state and by the federal government for that use."

Harrisburg School District started the fiscal year with a $29 million budget. Thanks to local taxes and property taxes, they are operating on a $27.8 million budget for the remainder of the year, Gretton says.

"We have not cut services. We have not reduced supplies," he adds. "We are operating on the status quo."

Harrisburg has, however, been forced to borrow money to provide for their Title I programs. If a budget is not passed by mid-to-late January, Gretton says, the school district will look towards taking out a $20 million line of credit.

"They're sitting there with those funds and it is very unfair for us to have to wait and potentially borrow that money," he adds. "They've got the funds. Why make it our hardship to go out and borrow money?"

Wolf opponents say the lack of flowing federal money could have been avoided months ago. If the governor would have passed a line-item budget in June or approved a stopgap budget, which the GOP caucus voted in October, money from the federal government would be in the hands of school districts and human service groups, they say.

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