By Daria Devlin
I was elected to the School Board of the City of Erie vowing to fight for our kids. And every day I am honored to work on behalf of our families, our teachers and staff, and most importantly our students, who truly represent the future. I am no stranger to Erie’s Public Schools, seeing the district through many lenses — as a parent, alumna, former district employee, and now school board director. While each role brings its own unique perspective, one thing remains common to all — we need more education funding, we need it now, and we are not alone.
This week, we watch from afar as budget negotiations are happening in Harrisburg. Last week, my colleagues and I on the Erie School Board were faced with a near impossible choice faced by 75 percent of school districts across the commonwealth — raise taxes by 4.5 percent or risk cutting critical student programs.
Ultimately, I voted yes, as so many school directors are forced to, approving a 2022-23 district budget that included this tax increase — not because we want to, but because we have to.
Like so many other Pennsylvania homeowners, I will not be happy to see a higher tax bill on my home this year.
But much like my fellow school directors in districts struggling to make ends meet on behalf of students, I know that without this increase the Erie School District would lack the resources it needs to keep vital student programs and supports in place.
Our decision to raise taxes is directly related to what’s happening in Harrisburg. When the state share of funding is low (as it is now), communities such as Erie must rely on local wealth (in the form of property taxes) to fund our schools, placing the burden on our most at-risk taxpayers, which includes many senior homeowners living on fixed incomes.
Pennsylvania is ranked 45th in the nation for the state share of funding that it provides for K-12 education. And, the Erie School District is one of the 100 least-resourced school districts in the entire state.
Because of this underfunding, each student in Erie’s Public Schools is shortchanged $4,941 every year, leaving school boards like ours no choice but to raise taxes.
What’s worse, this decision to raise local taxes is just a temporary fix. As long as the state’s share of education funding continues to decline, local property taxes will continue to rise.
And the poorest districts will be hurt the most because property taxes favor wealthier districts. This is why you often hear the criticism that the quality of education in Pennsylvania is directly related to a student’s zip code. In other words, the education funding system in Pennsylvania is simply stacked against some students.
Last year in the Pennsylvania budget, the 100 poorest school districts received a much-needed increase in funding when our legislature voted to pass the Level Up funding supplement.
This increase provided $100 million to our most inequitably funded schools, including Erie.
In 2022, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $300 million increase for Level Up funding, offering an even bigger opportunity to close our ever-growing funding gap. If Wolf’s Level Up proposal is passed, Erie would receive $8,378,022 in additional funding, which would make a huge impact on the amount we have to raise property taxes in future years.
Erie’s future depends on the success of Erie’s students – and Pennsylvania’s success will remain forever limited until Pennsylvania increases its investment in public schools.
The Level Up funding proposal currently being considered by our legislature will move the needle on equitable funding to directly support our schools. We cannot continue to rely on property tax increases (like the one we were just forced to pass) to give our students what they need.
Call your legislator today and let them know that Level Up is a jumpstart for school districts like ours. And remind them that every child in Pennsylvania, no matter where they live, has the right to a public education that prepares them for college or career. Our future depends on it.
Daria Devlin is a school board director in the Erie Public Schools.
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