Our Opinion: Threat of mass school closings might compel Harrisburg to finally pass state budget

Would it be a good idea – and it’s tragic this is becoming a viable option – for local school districts to publicly set definite dates each will close if Harrisburg doesn’t resolve the budget impasse?

The protracted battle, now unbelievably in its ninth month, between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature is beyond fiasco. Failure to enact a 2015-16 budget, due June 30 last summer, spreads misery to every corner of the Keystone State.

Municipalities, counties and social service agencies all get some money from Harrisburg. But there is a strong argument to be made – and it was made during a Feb. 29 roundtable discussion hosted by the Luzerne Intermediate Unit – that school districts bear the brunt, and thus are uniquely positioned to force an end to the recalcitrance under the rotunda.

“When the kids are supposed to be graduating and the school is not even functioning for them to graduate,” state Rep. Tarah Toohil predicted, “that’s when you’ll have the budget you need. But it really is a travesty that it’s going to take the ultimate pressure.”

Toohil, of Butler Township, is a Republican, and had been convinced that a Thanksgiving compromise was a sure bet. She and other area legislators have thrown up their hands when it comes to predicting a conclusion.

Both parties have blamed the other, but a revealing moment came at the roundtable when state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, put the fault of a failed Christmas compromise at the feet of the Republican leadership. Toohil and fellow Republican Aaron Kaufer, of Kingston, did not disagree.

Toohil suggested the leadership needs fresh faces telling them “Hey, knock it off.” Kaufer called the atmosphere in the Legislature unhealthy: “It’s sickening being down there sometimes.”

If lawmakers on both sides are angry, yet no compromise is in sight, it may indeed be time for drastic action. What would happen if school districts statewide declared they will close by a fixed date unless Harrisburg fixes this mess?

The risk to students is serious. But districts have been bleeding from a thousand pin pricks, running up costs through borrowing, deferring bill payments, delaying repairs or new construction. Planning next year’s school district budgets has become pointless.

Closing schools should never be a good idea. But the impasse, as Wilkes-Barre Area School Board member John Quinn said at the roundtable, has reached the point of “insanity.”

In looking to end the madness, the question might not be “is this a good idea?” but rather “is it the only viable idea left?”

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