District receives $1M grant
Funding to cover hospital tax shortfall
POTTSTOWN » There was no giant check but the news delivered to the Pottstown School District Sept. 20 was still pretty big.
Reacting to news last year that the sale of Pottstown Hospital to Tower Health would pull the property off the tax rolls, three area legislators said they went to work to replace the $970,000 the school district lost as a result of the sale.
Standing in the district’s newly created Beech Street Learning Studio in the former Washington Elementary School, state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist., was joined by state Reps. Tim Hen-
nessey, R-26th Dist., and Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist., to announce they had been successful in obtaining a $1 million grant to help plug Pottstown’s budget hole.
Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez, who Mensch described as one of the more “tenacious” school superintendents he’s met, said the revenue loss triggered “a financial crisis” that brought a 3.5 percent tax hike, the first one in three years.
That cost the median property owners in town a little under $100 more in taxes and it cost the 14 members of the district’s transportation department their jobs, among other cost-saving measures.
Although the school district adopted its $62.7 million budget on June 20 and the state budget was signed on June 22, Mensch said the money could not be delivered to Pottstown in time to stop that tax hike or save those jobs.
“Although we knew you were getting the $1 million, we had to go through the grant process, fill out the paperwork, make sure it was allocated correctly,” said Mensch. “We would have liked to have told you on June 30, but we couldn’t because the Is weren’t dotted and the Ts weren’t crossed, which was unfortunate.”
Thanks were offered nevertheless by Rodriguez and school board President Amy Francis who said the money “will really help make ends meet. I can’t tell you how many times at board meetings we’ve talked about things we want to do for our students, and then we talk about how we can’t afford it. It call comes back to the money.”
Pottstown is short more than just the $1 million lost from the hospital sale.
In fact, according to the “fair funding formula” the legislature has adopted but never fully implemented, Pottstown is underfunded by $13.8 million, giving Pottstown “the unwelcome distinction of having the fifth highest local tax effort in Pennsylvania,” Rodriguez said.
It is this aspect of state education funding on which Rodriguez has been most vocal in Harrisburg and which Mensch said all three legislators realize is the larger issue facing the district.
The problem, Mensch and Quigley said, is that many districts in the central and western portion of the state, do not face the same issues and so those who represent them see little reason to push money into the formula when it means their districts would lose state funding.
“Every district in Indiana County would lose 35to-40 percent of their state funding” if the fair funding formula were to be fully implemented today, said Quigley. Mensch compared the effort to convince legislators from other parts of the state to address fair funding to the Greek legend of Sisyphus, a king doomed to forever push a rock up hill, only to have it roll back as it nears the top.
So while all three said they are happy to have been able to provide what Hennessey called “a lifeline” to the school district this year, all three said they realize the grant is a temporary fix, what Mensch called “a BandAid,” barring a major shift in the chances fair funding bills they have proposed have of being adopted.
“We’re just putting a bandage on a wound that’s going to show up again next year,” Hennessey said.
Because when budget season rolls around again, that $1 million hole will still be on the district’s books.
To address that, all three legislators have proposed bills that would create a $5 million fund to which districts could apply to make up for tax revenues lost when hospitals become nonprofit, “so taxpayers don’t have to dig deeper into their pockets,” said Hennessey.
He said in addition to Pottstown, tax bases in Phoenixville, Coatesville and Octorora school districts were all affected by the sale of hospitals owned by the for-profit Community Health System hospitals to the non-profit Tower Health.
“This is what representative government is supposed to do,” Rodriguez said. “See a problem and work on solutions.”
With only a few days left in the current session, the three legislators have about six months to get either the fair funding or $5 million tax loss bill passed before the next budget deadline inflicts another $970,000 wound on the district, its taxpayers and its students all over again.
Celebrating the announcement of a $1 million grant for Pottstown Schools were, from left, Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez, state Rep. Tim Hennessey, student school board member Johnay Cranford, state Rep. Tom Quigley, state Sen. Bob Mensch, School Board President Amy Francis and school board member John Armato.
State Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist., speaks at the Sept. 20 announcement of a $1 million education grant for Pottstown Schools. Behind him are state Reps. Tim Hennessey, R-26th Dist., and Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist.
Pottstown School Board President Amy Francis said the $1 million grant announced Sept. 20 “will really help make ends meet.”