CLAIRTON (KDKA) — Clairton School District welcomed Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday, where grade school students greeted him with a Valentine’s song.
The governor talked to administrators and teachers about how the failure to complete this year’s budget impacts school districts.
“It’s been a little tough, what with the budget and everything, obviously,” said first grade teacher Jennifer Schlata.
Schlata told the governor teachers often have to pitch in on their own.
“Sometimes I have to use our own money, but you know, it’s what we have to do,” she says.
Another problem for many classrooms in Pennsylvania is they simply don’t have enough money for books.
It’s another reason why the state legislators and the governor need to end this impasse as quickly as possible.
“We really need funding for books that teach about literature,” said second grade teacher Kristin Hecker.
Lack of funding from Harrisburg pushed Hecker to organize a website for donations.
“I started ‘The Donors Choose,’ and I was able to raise money for three individual iPads that some of the students are using for their literacy center back there,” she said.
The governor said the failure of Republican lawmakers to complete the budget, which leaves schools unfunded for six of the 12 months of the fiscal year, has consequences.
“It’s not good and it’s going to get worse,” said the governor.
“We have got to get moving because the train wreck is not five years down the road any more. It’s not four years or three years. It’s coming up in a couple months,” said Wolf.
Wolf wants an increase in the state income tax — from 3.07 percent to 3.40 percent to fund schools and close the deficit.
Without that, he says, “Teachers are going to be laid off, schools are going to shut down, and local taxes will go even higher.”
Wolf used young children at the Clairton Elementary school to drive home his point that the failure of the state legislature to act on his budget is harming children.
“I understand you can’t throw money at any problem and hope to get to a good outcome, but as you’ve seen traveling around these classrooms you can’t keep taking money out of anything, including something as central to what we do in a democracy as education, and hope to get to a good result.”
Wolf said the legislature needs to pass his budget with its hike in the state income tax to avoid massive school cuts.
“We’re going to have to cut a billion dollars from education next year if we don’t get a balanced budget. That’s what we’re looking at — a billion dollars,” he said.
In a statement, the state Republican Party accused Wolf of using students to get his way, saying, “Tom Wolf has spent the past eight months holding our students hostage in exchange for higher taxes.”
“As for holding students hostage,” retorted the governor, “I’m not one who has withheld funding for education. I’m the one who is proposing major historic increases in education.”
Republicans also accuse Wolf of engaging in a statewide political tour to promote his budget.
Wolf pleads guilty to that.
“I have played the game the way it was supposed to be played, and now I’m going out to the people — the bosses — saying, hey people of Pennsylvania, we need a budget and here are the two choices we have,” he said.
Wolf says the choice is between his plan with a slight hike in income tax rates — and the Republican plan that hikes school property taxes.
“Local taxes are going to go even higher. I’m not certain they can get even higher than they are in certain places around the state. They’re going to go even higher. That’s the Republican tax plan, and it’s not a good one,” said Wolf.
Republicans say Wolf is just widening the partisan divide.
Gov. Wolf joined the “KDKA Morning News” to discuss the budget and his visit to Clairton. He says his plan to increase personal income tax is better than the Republican wants to raise property taxes.
“There are two tax proposals on the table, mine, which does seek to raise a modest amount of taxes at the state level. My proposal of 3.4 percent personal income tax would still be the third lowest income tax in the United States. If we don’t do that, we also have tax increases,” Wolf said.
“The Republican tax plan is to increase property taxes. The problem with that is you get places like Clairton; they already have raised property taxes through the roof. I’m not sure how you can raise property taxes anymore and so what they’re looking at is cutting and cutting classes, cutting teachers…it is not a good thing for Pennsylvania’s future.”