The he said, she said debate over state education funding and the controversy surrounding former Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis made its way to Pittsburgh Wednesday morning.
Former gubernatorial hopeful Katie McGinty spoke in the Allegheny County Courthouse gallery, criticizing Gov. Tom Corbett and stumping for Democratic nominee Tom Wolf.
McGinty is chairwoman of the Campaign for a Fresh Start, a new organization working in tandem with Wolf’s campaign for governor and the campaigns of Democratic legislative nominees statewide.
“Our property owners are reeling with property tax increases, and what we have is a governor starving kids of funds while he’s provided a very nice payday for a political friend of his,” McGinty said.
She was referring to accusations that Ron Tomalis was a ghost employee in his role as special education advisor to Corbett, and that he didn’t actually do any work. Tomalis announced last week that he would step down from his post on Aug. 26.
Billy Pitman, press secretary for the Corbett campaign, said he couldn’t speak in detail about Tomalis’s role in the administration. However, he did say that Tomalis was “very helpful” to the governor and current Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq in resurrecting the governor’s schools, five-week summer programs for gifted high school students, as well as the Ready to Succeed Scholarship Program, which are also geared toward high-achieving students.
In terms of property tax increases, McGinty pointed to Corbett, while his campaign pointed right back at Wolf and Democratic legislators who “refuse to come to the table” with regard to pension reform.
“Tom Wolf isn’t being up front with Pennsylvania voters,” Pitman said. “He won’t address our pension crisis and what he would do to fix it, instead of just looking for tax increases.”
McGinty said 77 percent of school districts are poised to increase property taxes, while Pitman said 163 out of Pennsylvania’s 501 public school districts have requested waivers to increase property taxes above the maximum allowable rate without voter approval.
“If you’re a homeowner, you’ve probably seen your taxes go up,” said Lisa Stout, the Democrat seeking to unseat Republican incumbent Richard Saccone in House District 39, which includes parts of Allegheny and Washington counties. “That’s thanks to Governor Corbett and his cronies in the Legislature. They claim to be defenders of the taxpayer, but all they do is send the problem down from Harrisburg and into our backyards, and force local school districts to take the heat.”
Roughly half of Allegheny County public school districts increased property taxes this year, including Pittsburgh Public Schools. A 2 percent increase was approved by the PPS Board of Directors in January.
Still, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said the school district is struggling financially.
“In the city schools, we have had four rounds of school closures,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “This has affected low-income communities of color disproportionately, in some cases leaving neighborhoods without schools that students can walk to.”
McGinty placed the blame for public school districts’ dire straits squarely on the shoulders of the Corbett administration, saying he was responsible for $1 billion in cuts to basic education spending in 2011. Pitman later responded on behalf of Corbett’s campaign for re-election, saying McGinty and Tom Wolf themselves were to blame for the apparent cuts.
“I think they should look in the mirror,” Pitman said. “Look to the past administration which both Tom Wolf and Katie McGinty were members of, in which state dollars for education were cut and replaced with one time stimulus funding which artificially propped up our school budgets.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this post, it was stated that Billy Pitman could not talk about the Tomalis controversy in detail “because it would violate state law regarding the separation of campaign and administrative workforce when public officials run for re-election.” However, that state law applies to taxpayer-funded administration staff, and not to campaign staff. Pitman said questions about Tomalis should be directed to the Corbett administration, not to the Tom Corbett for Governor campaign. The post has been updated.