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PA Gubernatorial Candidates Clash on Education, Pension Issues

Education and pensions are two of the hottest topics in Pennsylvania’s race for governor.

West York Area School District Superintendent Emilie Lonardi, who was voted Pennsylvania’s 2014 Superintendent of the Year, told Watchdog Wire that her district had to pay $1,495,469 in pension costs in 2010-11 out of West York’s local school district budget. Her district’s school board, along with 162 school districts across the Commonwealth, raised local school property taxes in 2014-15 in order to fully fund their staff’s annual pension increases.

Not only did West York raise property taxes, but they also had to apply for exceptions under Act 1, which means the district asked to raise its school property taxes above a state-approved local property tax rate. Exceptions include funding for pensions and special education needs. West York was approved its exceptions for both.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic nominee Tom Wolf have entirely different viewpoints to improve their outlooks. Wolf, and his supporters, believe Corbett has failed in education, as well has tried to magnify the so-called pension crisis. Pennsylvania is saddled with a nearly $50 billion unfunded liability.

In August, Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) said, “I can say this pretty comfortably, schools and school funding, and pensions and pension funding virtually have nothing to do with each other.” Sims said those words in August when he appeared on CBS21 with Robb Hanrahan.

“It’s easy for the governor to try to tie those two things together,” Sims had said in his Hanrahan interview.

In response to his comment, Lonardi said, “Where would the money come from to pay the increases if not our budgets?”

Sims appears to be following much of the same script as Wolf, who appeared in his second debate Oct. 1 in Philadelphia alongside Corbett. The script reads in part, Pennsylvania’s pension crisis falls on the responsibility of Corbett, and the crisis is manufactured.

During the CBS Philly “Breakfast with the Candidates” debate, Corbett held his position that he claims to have increased education spending. Wolf, in the second of three debates, again, accused Corbett of cutting nearly 27,000 education jobs. Corbett said it would behoove Wolf to research his predecessor, who did the actual cutting in education. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune, Corbett said, 14,000 of education jobs cut were done under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration.

Rendell, in 2010, signed into law Act 120, which was a protection measure attempting to guarantee an employer and employee match in a defined-benefits plan. The Pennsylvania State Education Association backs this plan, not a defined-contribution pension plan that Corbett and state Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill) endorsed throughout the summer.

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“Ed Rendell cut the state funding to education and replaced it with one-time stimulus money that ran out 2011, June the 30th, my first budget was July 1, 2011,” Corbett said.

Wolf surmised that Corbett must be wrong, and he supports his claim with anecdotal evidence.

“You have not been a friend to education,” Wolf said.

Solutions Wolf said to “fixing” education is to implement a 5 percent severance tax, change charter schools funding to a marginal cost formula, and expand Medicaid. Wolf said he will provide everyone with more specifics once he figures out how big a “hole” Corbett has left him, and then he’ll clue Pennsylvanians in on what he’ll do to fix education.

In spite of Wolf’s significant lead in the polls, and his suggested steps to improve education, Corbett said the state is now on the right track, but pension reform needs to happen. Corbett also inferred to Wolf’s ignorance on the growing pension demands, especially on the local school level, asserting his negligence as irresponsible.

The debate, Corbett said, in education should not always be focused on Philadelphia School District. He told Wolf a governor has to lead the entire state from Erie to Philadelphia.

“Pensions just eat away at the budget,” Corbett said.

Jana Benscoter

Jana Benscoter is the editor of Watchdog Wire - Pennsylvania. Contact her at Pennsylvania@WatchdogWire.com and find her on Twitter @jbenz51. Jana has worked in journalism for more than a decade, during which she’s covered topics, including: business, education, local and state government, and political corruption. Jana has been published in The Boston Globe, The Daily Caller, Drexel Alumni Magazine, Carolina Journal, Guilford Woman Magazine, The Harrisburg-Patriot News, The High Point Enterprise, Kinston Free Press, Lincoln Tribune Online, the Rhinoceros Times, and others.

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