HARRISBURG, Pa (WHTM) — Two school districts within state Representative Sue Helm‘s 104th Legislative District are in tight budget battles, and she knows it.
Earlier this week, hundreds of parents, students, staff and other taxpayers turned out at school board meetings for both the Millersburg and Halifax school districts. The small, mainly rural districts in northern Dauphin County aren’t unique as they face higher operating costs and fewer funds to pay for them, but their vocal taxpayers are making an impact.
On Tuesday evening, when about 200 people turned out for the Halifax School Board meeting, the majority of speakers during the public comment period were upset over a proposed cost-cutting budget which would inflict deep wounds on district-wide academic, arts and athletic programs, as well as result in larger class sizes due to teacher layoffs. While many in the community resist a tax increase due to its impact on landowners such as farmers, one person in the audience suggested the emotions are being directed at the wrong group.
“What’s sad is we’ve got a huge community here having this fight about how we’re going to fund our schools here when really what we should do is all get up and drive to Harrisburg or call Sue Helm’s office,” said Chris Ruff, a taxpayer and teacher.
Helm was not at either meeting earlier this week but says constituents from both the Millersburg and Halifax communities have reached out to her offices.
“I’m glad somebody mentioned my name at this meeting last night,” she said. “It is time that we absolutely do something about it because school taxes, property taxes in general just keep going up. Their salaries are not in line with what’s happening with their taxes.”
Helm says the fight to eliminate or reduce property taxes has been going on for “at least 30 years.” She says she’ll continue the fight alongside a coalition of fellow lawmakers.
Helm said increasing the amount of dollars distributed from gambling revenue could serve as property tax relief for more communities.
At the same time that districts are struggling to find funds, Helm and fellow legislators in both the House of Representatives and Senate passed House Bill 1598 on Tuesday. The bill, also known as Pennsylvania’s fiscal code, offers the blueprint for how state budget dollars are spent, including distributions to school districts. Governor Wolf vetoed the bill earlier this year when he refused to sign the appropriations bill.
Helm says Halifax, in particular, will benefit from an amended portion of the fiscal code which addresses a state program known as PlanCon. The program offers state reimbursement to school districts who are undergoing construction projects.
The program has been unable to keep up with payments to school districts for years, with some waiting for tens of millions of dollars in back payments. The revised PlanCon program authorizes the state to borrow up to $2.5 billion to make good on all of the money it currently owes to school districts.
In Halifax, those dollars would be used to pay about 30 percent of a $20 million loan the district recently obtained when renovating its middle and high school campus. Should PlanCon move in that direction, districts would receive lump sums immediately, and a minimum 18-month moratorium would be placed on the program, pending a possible relaunch in the future.
As for extra-curricular programs, including the middle school basketball program proposed to be cut from Millersburg’s budget, Helm says she hopes the new influx of state cash will help maintain the status quo.
“The money will start flowing now,” she said. “We’re going to work hard to get [the state budget] done on time next year. And let’s see if we can keep the programs there, because it is important for the kids.”