Passing the Buck (or, Yes! I’m a Patsy)


You’ve heard the saying “the buck stops here,” right?  President Truman famously kept a sign with the phrase on his desk.  He recognized the common sense idea that leaders should take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

But as we all well know, most politicians don’t like this idea very much.   Our representatives in Harrisburg and Washington are quicker than ever to duck responsibility for how their votes affect regular people.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in the funding of public schools in Pennsylvania.

The first and most important fact about our district’s budget is that many of our expenses are decided in Harrisburg, not locally.  State legislators pass mandates that legally require the district to spend money but do not provide the revenue to pay for them.  These politicians (with salaries from $98,609 to $134,998) create new expenses for school districts every year, then pass the buck to local school board members (who are paid $0) to collect the taxes needed to pay the bills.

Here are some of the biggest yokes our state representatives have put around the school district’s neck:

  • Pension Costs: The pensions of teachers and other school employees is dictated by the state.  In 2001, state politicians boosted the benefits paid to pension holders, including themselves.  For the next decade, teachers and school districts paid their fair share of pension costs, but state lawmakers did not, choosing instead to create a series of legal loopholes to allow them to pass the buck to future taxpayers.  As a result, Pennsylvania now has one of the most underfunded state pension systems in the country, and Harrisburg has mandated that local taxpayers in school districts pay an ever-increasing amount of the cost.  Next year, East Penn is on the hook for approximately $18 million in pension costs — or over 12% of our current preliminary budget next year.  This is more than a 9% increase from just last year.   And all of these figures are determined by Harrisburg.
  • Special Education: Federal mandates require the school district to pay for all costs required to educate children with special needs, and the state of Pennsylvania adds additional requirements above and beyond the federal ones.   These rules do not allow for compromise or balance against other needs, no matter what the cost.  For example, the district must supply one teacher for every 8 students with certain kinds of autism.  In East Penn, we have individual students with special needs so profound that they cost the district more than $100,000 each to educate each year.   Overall, the district spends about $20 million annually on special education.  And when mandated costs increase, the state has passed the buck to local school boards, allowing them only two options: cut funding to regular programs or raise local taxes.
  • Charter School Costs: Charter schools, including online schools, are funded by taking money out of local public school district budgets.  The state initially promised to help subsidize the cost of these schools, but passed the buck entirely to local taxpayers a few years ago.  East Penn is thus required to pay more than $4.5 million annually for about 350 students to attend various charter schools, many of whom are enrolled in schools that are only online (so-called “cyber” charters).  If we were to eliminate this single cost alone, the district could easily adopt a budget with zero tax increase this year, and perhaps even reduce taxes.

These are just three examples of ways in which our representatives in Harrisburg have passed the buck to you and me at the local level.  There are literally hundreds of other mandates handed down by the state, from requiring a certain number of foreign languages being taught, to dictating the rules for bereavement leave of employees, to how disciplinary records must be transferred when a student transfers schools. Some mandates focus on big issues while others can only be described as extreme micromanagement.  And they adopt more every year.  After all, it’s easy to decide what schools should and shouldn’t do when you don’t actually have to pay any of it.

Let me be clear: I am not opposed to fair retirement benefits for teachers, robust special education funding, school choice, or the goals of numerous other mandates.  We need all of these things.  But those making the decision for how to implement them should also be the ones making the decision for how to pay for them.  The state used to contribute its fair share.  In the 1974, the state paid 55% of all public school costs.  Next year, by contrast, East Penn is on track to receive only about 23% of its operating budget from the state.  They’ve passed the buck to you and me.

So as you review the school district’s four budgets each year, consider how much of the “local” budget is really under local control.  And next time you have the opportunity to vote for a state representative, look at how many school mandates they favor and whether they have passed the buck to local school districts to pay for them.

State and federal mandates are only one piece of the larger budgetary puzzle in our district.  To read the other pieces in this budget series, check out:

3 thoughts on “Passing the Buck (or, Yes! I’m a Patsy)”

  1. Thanks for this excellent and informative series. I couldn’t agree more about the charter schools – what a waste to be throwing money down the drain educating students so poorly. Having lived in many other states as well, let me also add that I find it completely odd that the district is required to bus students to/from whatever private school they choose to attend. That cost can’t be inconsequential, either.

  2. Hoping for more money from the state is a fruitless endeavor. That’s because East Penn is a relatively wealthy school district compared to rural and urban places. EPSD has had a low aid ratio for many decades, even before I was on the school board starting in the 1980’s.

    Most school districts have much higher aid ratios than East Penn. Typically, the aggregate total return for what East Penn taxpayers send to Harrisburg for schools is only about half the state’s average. There certainly is a social benefit for this redistribution, but it doesn’t serve East Penn taxpayers directly to clamor for more redistribution.

    In any case, the money has to come from somewhere, and East Penn students will always benefit far less than what its taxpayers will put in to the state to fund that. Unfortunately, complaining about state funding is a good talking point, but if it happened, the end result would be completely unproductive (and even damaging) for East Penn’s students and taxpayers.


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