The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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June 15, 2013

Lawmakers discuss transportation, cyber school measures

JOHNSTOWN — Among the multitude of issues impacting ongoing state budget negotiations, state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, and state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, discussed two subjects at length during a State of the Commonwealth Address on Friday morning: transportation and education.

Last week, the Senate passed a bill to provide $1.4 billion for bridge and road work throughout 2013-14. The amount would increase to $2.5 billion by the fifth fiscal year when three-quarters of the funds would be spent on highways and bridges, while 20 percent would go toward mass transit and 5 percent for other transportation. Residents would likely have to pay for the construction and repairs through higher fuel costs, along with increased fees for vehicle registrations, driver’s licenses and traffic violations.

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has proposed his own plan that would net

$510 million in the first year and $1.8 billion by the fifth, mostly through a phased-in lifting of a cap on the wholesale gas tax.

Wozniak feels more immediate funding and action is needed because almost

4,500 Pennsylvania bridges are considered structurally deficient and 9,000 miles of roads are in poor condition.

The House is now considering the matter.

“It is probably the most important vote, the most important decision that we could probably make in the first quarter of the 21st century,” said Wozniak during the event hosted by the Greater Johnstown/ Cambria County Chamber of Commerce at Anthony’s Restaurant.

The plan could help create 60,000 to 70,000 jobs, according to Wozniak.

“It is safety first and jobs second, and third, it is going to be our best stimulus package that we could ever come up with,” said the senator from the 35th district.

Barbin then addressed education, going into detail about the impact of cyber charter schools on the budget.

Pennsylvania’s 16 cyber schools will receive about

$400 million in taxpayer funding this year, although none met mandated adequate yearly progress targets in 2012.

Cybers bill school districts where respective students would otherwise attend. The cost per pupil in a public school district is determined by adding together all costs incurred with educating a student from pencils to pensions. Cyber schools get the same amount per student even though their costs are usually much less, since there are fewer teachers and no actual buildings to maintain.

Pennsylvania’s cybers get an average of $11,000 per pupil, according to the state Department of Education.

Barbin, who called the way state cyber schools are funded a “fraud,” wants to see the matter addressed in the budget.

“Cybers have figured it out,” said Barbin, representative from the 71st district. “As long as the funding source remains not actual costs, like it is for a public school, and it is instead the cost of the public school where the student came from, that cyber school gets paid $10,000, $11,000, $20,000, even though the cost they put into that student is between $4,000 and $5,000 a student. ... I think cyber schools can be good. I just don’t think we should pay $20,000 for a student that goes to a cyber school. That’s the problem.”

He added, “We’ve got enough money to handle our public education. We just have to spend it the right way.”

Wozniak and Barbin also touched upon other subjects impacting budget talks, including possible liquor store privatization, Medicare and pension liability.

The deadline to pass a budget is June 30.

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