Some telling numbers lie deeper in state education budget

The new state education budget officially put into action July 1 has numbers that should make local school administrators a bit happier.

Every Luzerne County district saw an increase in combined basic and special education funding, ranging from a 0.1 percent hike for Northwest Area (a scant $7,120 boost) to a 5.3 percent boon for Dallas, or $363,873 more.

But the state’s relatively new formula for doling out some of that money offers underlying data that shows how different local district finances are. For example, median household income varies by as much as $34,000, making a substantial difference in how much a district is likely to get from real estate taxes.

Wilkes-Barre Area residents had the lowest household income in the county based on a five-year average calculated for each district in the state. Diamond City residents averaged only $38,385 per household. Compare that to the two wealthiest districts in the county: Crestwood, with an average of $72,250, and Dallas, at $64,677

The data also shows a five-year percentage of students below the federal poverty rate, with Wilkes-Barre topping the list at nearly 42 percent, and Crestwood at the lowest rate with 6.3 percent. Lake-Lehman had the second lowest rate among Luzerne County districts, at 8.8 percent, while Dallas had the third lowest at 13.2 percent. Greater Nanticoke Area had the second highest rate at almost 31 percent and two districts — Hazleton Area and Hanover Area — were above 28 percent.

Not surprisingly, the county’s two largest districts also had the biggest number of “Limited English Proficiency” students, though the numbers vary substantially. Hazleton Area had 2,137 LEP students last school year, or 19 percent of a total enrolment at 11,223. Wilkes-Barre Area had 548 LEP students, 7.8 percent of the 6,972 total. No other district topped a total of 60 such students. Three (Dallas, Lake-Lehman and Wyoming Area) were in single digits, while Northwest Area — the county’s smallest district — had none.

All this data and more have been in play since the state Legislature adopted a new Basic Education Funding Formula in 2016. The formula attempts to dole out state dollars based on a district’s actual student needs and costs, and its ability to pay those costs. But the formula has been applied to only “new money,” any additional state funding put into the education budget above what a district was getting before the formula was enacted.

The application of that formula has become a key dispute in a lawsuit filed by individuals and several school districts — including Wilkes-Barre Area — contending the state has failed a constitutional duty to adequately fund public education. Opponents contend the suit is moot because the new formula is in place, an argument the plaintiffs are rigorously rejecting.

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Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

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