State lawmakers Steve Santarsiero, Perry Warren, and John Galloway are requesting Gov. Tom Wolf provide Morrisville School District more aid to prevent drastic budget cuts and allow it to fund online learning for students.
In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, and Reps. Perry Warren and John Galloway requested the state Department of Education reexamine its funding formula while also providing immediate aid to the district to offset proposed cuts in the 2020-21 school year budget.
The letter also asks the state to provide Morrisville with a grant so it can adequately provide mandated continuity learning for students during the pandemic after the district was denied funding that would have partially paid for 650 Chromebooks.
Of the district’s 1,046 total students, 520 of its 868 on-campus students do not have access to a computer or internet at home, Superintendent Jason Harris said during a news conference held by district and borough officials and lawmakers Friday.
The request is in response to the school board’s recent approval of an economic furlough resolution that could pave the way for cuts to all athletic and kindergarten programs, fine arts and music programs and electives courses throughout the district as well as the furlough of an assistant principal, an administrator, four support staff members, a pupil support position, and a media specialist.
The board also may consider a 2.79% tax increase as it works to fill a $1.5-million budget gap.
Santarsiero said he and the other lawmakers believe both issues highlighted in the letter are tied to an “error in the way that both the existing and new funding formulas are calculated for Morrisville.”
For the 2020-21 school year, the formula projects a 5-year residential household income of roughly $75,000 in Morrisville — comparable to neighboring 19067 area ZIP code municipalities Lower Makefield and Yardley. However, Morrisville’s actual median income is about $53,000.
“As a consequence of this apparent error, Morrisville School District has been unfairly underfunded for a number of years,” Santarsiero said.
“The funding formula deals with 500 different school districts in an incredibly diverse state,” Galloway said. “There are going to be anomalies, and one of those was Morrisville.”
The three state lawmakers who represent the borough said they want the state education department to look at fixing the problem before the department’s Funding Commission meets next year, and in the meantime increase Morrisville’s base funding to an amount “sufficient to bridge the current shortfall and avoid cuts.”
“We’re also asking for the state to find the money that Morrisville would have been otherwise entitled to had the formula been correct for the technology grant it had applied for ... Every little bit helps,” Santarsiero said.
He said the state grant is projected to be about $20,000 to $30,000. The district planned to use the funds and federal stimulus money to purchase the laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots for students but was forced to cancel the order when the grant was denied.
In the meantime, Morrisville students will use 300 Chromebooks recently donated by the Bucks County Technical High School in Bristol Township and community members. Since schools across the state were forced to close from the virus, most borough students have used smartphones or printed packets to work on optional assignments for enrichment and review.
“We’ve had community members step up and donate hot spots and devices to assist in providing equipment to the most critical of student needs,” Harris said.
On Thursday, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1 of Middletown, sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos urging her to allow districts like Morrisville to use 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant funding to fill budget gaps. Federal guidelines restrict how districts can use the funding.
While roughly $13.2 billion will be given to states to help schools during the pandemic, the money has yet to reach local districts and likely won’t be enough to prevent cuts, Fitzpatrick said.
“The funding appropriated by Congress is simply not enough to help districts like Morrisville stay afloat,” he said. “We need to give school districts maximum flexibility to access much-needed funds, to help them stay on track to best support their students, faculty, and staff.”
Santarsiero said Pennsylvania likely will receive about $4 billion through the federal CARES Act, but that will be limited to direct impacts of the coronavirus.
Fitzpatrick said he has been working with state officials to push the federal government to provide guidance for schools during the pandemic.
“School districts cannot wait any longer,” he said. “The U.S. Department of Education must act now to ensure that our school districts can provide the best quality of education during these turbulent times and to protect the jobs of our educators.”
Over the last five years, area lawmakers have pushed to help the Morrisville district get an additional $1 million per year in state funding. However, the money is “a bandage and not a long-term solution,” Warren said.
“It’s been a good thing because it’s helped bridge the funding gap that Morrisville has been experiencing over the last five years, but we need to look at a more long-term solution,” he said.
Even with additional state and federal funds, Morrisville’s budget problems will continue as decades of lost industry and a shrinking tax base will continue to force the district to work with less, officials said.
Since 2010, real estate values in the borough have dropped by $1.2 million, school board President Damon Miller said.
In recent years, district officials have reached out to neighboring districts seeking a merger or a tuition agreement for its students. In 2015, Pennsbury, Neshaminy, Council Rock, Bensalem, Bristol Borough and Bristol Township turned down offers despite the state Department of Education offering to share in the cost of a feasibility study.
During the news conference, Galloway said Morrisville will need to file as a financially distressed district with the state before lawmakers can help broker a merger or tuition program.
While the district is hurting financially, officially declaring a financial distress designation with PDE would hurt the district, borough and surrounding areas, Miller said. The district is not on PDE’S distress list, nor is it under financial watch, he said.
“The Morrisville School District cannot do this alone and state regulations require the interest of another district to move forward,” he said. “Our neighbors in Pennsbury are aware of our desire to initiate a discussion should they wish to reach out.
“In regards to the future, if no district is interested, we will have to see where the district lies financially and educationally at that time. No merger will happen by next year, so we need to focus on the immediate issues and work toward long-term goals.”
The district is projecting $7.2 million in special education costs for 230 students, with roughly $775,000 in funding from the state and $530,000 from the federal government, according to budget figures.
State-required Morrisville tuition payments for students living within the district who attend charter schools will cost an additional $1 million, or roughly $100,000 more than the previous school year.
The district also is on the hook for a $3 million contribution to the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System, which is about $200,000 more than last year.
Meanwhile, the district projects being $75,000 short in its fund balance, after it had roughly $2.6 million in savings in 2014.
The district also is projecting a loss of about $500,000 in revenue due to the pandemic, Miller said.