HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – School kids singing Christmas carols on the steps of the Capitol Rotunda.
A student orchestra playing holiday music in the East Wing Rotunda.
From one side of the Capitol to the other, school children are entertaining passersby, staffers and lawmakers alike all week.
But sour notes in budget talks are threatening the second half of the school year for many of those children. The budget stalemate is now in its 168th day.
“We have to choose between borrowing money or closing and not having school,” said Randy Tomasacci, school board president at Northwest Area School District.
Tomasacci doesn’t like the choices he and other schools across the state are forced to make. He traveled from Luzerne County to the Capitol Tuesday to tell lawmakers in person that no budget could soon mean no classes.
“We’re not here to point fingers or assign blame, but we want legislators to realize schools are gonna close,” he said. “There’s gonna be children who don’t have a place to go.”
Representative Tara Toohil (R-Luzerne) represents Northwest Area. She’s been telling all of her school districts to hang on, the money’s coming once the budget’s done. She knows that message is getting old as the impasse drags on.
“It seems we are getting farther and farther away,” Toohil said, “that the light at the end of the tunnel, yes, you’re getting your money, which we’re telling our school districts, that it seems we’re getting farther and farther away from that.”
The standoff is approaching record proportions. In 2009, then-governor Ed Rendell didn’t finish a budget until December 23. But Rendell didn’t hold up all of the budget line items, just some of them until the final deal was done.
“This is the worst that we’ve ever seen,” said John Callahan, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Callahan says many districts have borrowed money during the impasse, but some have exhausted their credit lines and will be out of cash early next year.
“They’re not gonna be able to meet payroll or keep the lights on,” Callahan said.
While most Pennsylvanians have barely noticed the lack of a state budget, shuttered schools would be a major tipping point.
“If schools don’t open in parts of the state after the holiday break, that’s a huge problem,” conceded Representative Warren Kampf (R-Chester/Montgomery).
On that, surely everyone agrees.
Whether negotiators can find enough agreement in the building to end the impasse soon is still not clear.
“Dennis, every time in the last week I’ve tried to predict what was going to happen the next day, it turned out to be not correct,” Kampf said. “I would like it done by Christmas.”
Again, who can disagree?
But it’s probably not bad to remind lawmakers and the governor that kids across the commonwealth are counting on them to get the job done – soon.