Harrisburg schools still struggling despite partial budget

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- As Governor Wolf stood in his reception room and announced his plans to line-item veto a Republican-pushed budget plan, Bill Gretton watched and hoped.

"They need to understand that the original reductions made in 2010 more significantly impacted the poorer school districts," Gretton said.

He watched as Wolf released all federal funding and six months worth of state funding out of the Basic Education Fund. It amounted to slightly more than $2.5 billion for Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, less than half of the total devoted to 2014-15 education spending levels.

Harrisburg will receive around $17 million in state money, according to a letter Gretton received from the Department of Education, and another $7 million in Title I federal funding. The $24 million sounds like a lot, but it's bare bones for a school district like Harrisburg's.

"In our case it somewhat hurts us," Gretton said. "We’re not able to reinstitute critical programs vital to our system originally cut."

Programs and jobs such as school librarians, which Harrisburg currently employs none. Also, social worker programs have been cut along with the use of home and school visitors. These are people who work outside of the school district who work personally with students before, during, and after school hours to make sure they attend class, do homework, have meals, and are properly dressed.

"[These programs are] the difference between a student wanting to be here and learn versus wanting to drop out," Gretton said.

Gov. Wolf's "framework budget" he says he agreed upon with the Senate, and pledged a $400 million increase in education funding over Gov. Tom Corbett's final budget, would supply Harrisburg with enough money to reestablish those programs, Gretton says. That's why he watched the governor's announcement Tuesday with mixed feelings.

Harrisburg was weeks away from needing to take out a loan to keep its doors open. Gretton estimated the school district had until mid-to-late January to run off previous years' federal funding before it needed to ask to borrow money. With the governor's version of a stopgap budget, those loans will not be needed and Gretton estimates Harrisburg will comfortably be able to remain open through the end of the school year.

However, for a school district like Harrisburg, whose poverty rates are among the highest and graduation rates are among the lowest in the state, money is needed most for those programs which impact at-risk students.

That's money they can't have, yet.

"It's not that we want tons of dollars for extra things," Gretton says. "These are basic services that our children need day in and day out."

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