POLITICS

State Senator Who Can Afford To Charter Helicopters On Whim Says Public Schools Overfunded

06/05/2015 05:51 pm ET
ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Republican state senator illustrated his belief that the state's schools aren't suffering financially by chartering a helicopter ride for himself and a local reporter last week.

According to ACB27 reporter Dennis Owens, Sen. Scott Wagner pointed at various schools from 1,600 feet up to make the argument that their expansive facilities mean the state spends "a lot of money" on all schools.

“This looks like a college or university campus if you look at the sports fields," he said of one. "And they have tennis courts down there.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who unseated former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in November, is pushing for the state legislature to increase education funding by $1 billion. Corbett was one of the few Republicans to lose statewide in an excellent year for GOP candidates.

“Senator Wagner should get out of the helicopter and go visit a school,” Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan told Owens, suggesting that the legislator cherry-picked the districts he flew over. “Nobody has said that every school district across the state was devastated. But we’ve said, and maintain, and stand by that school districts across the state are struggling.”

Wagner and his guests did not fly over Philadelphia, which experienced an 8 percent drop in funding during Corbett's tenure. In December, an Associated Press report found that the disparity between what the state's richest and poorest school districts spend per student doubled while Corbett was in office.

Wagner did not immediately respond to a Huffington Post request for comment. But in a statement on his website, Wagner defended the helicopter trip, arguing his constituents wanted him to fight any tax increases, "which Governor Wolf wants to increase so he can shovel more money into the black hole of education funding." In his 2014 race for the state Senate seat, Wagner ran on eliminating school property taxes and replacing that revenue with sales taxes on food and clothing.

“This is exactly why the citizens of York County sent me to Harrisburg,” Wagner wrote. “For years they have watched these Taj-Mahal-like facilities be built while their property taxes continued to skyrocket. Taxpayers are tired of being fed [Pennsylvania State Education Association] union talking points to justify more and more spending. Clearly, we can see where the money we are giving them is going -- to building these college-like campuses, which of course, are built using mandated prevailing wages. And let’s not forget the even bigger, yearly culprits -- salaries, pensions, and benefits.”

Wagner said the trip was not meant to be a political stunt.

“I routinely fly several times per month by helicopter throughout Pennsylvania and have for several years, and every time I fly over a jaw-dropping public school campus my pilot and I are totally flabbergasted," he said. "Being up in the air at 2000 feet gives you a different perspective on buildings."

The communications director for Pennsylvania's Working Families Party, Amy Fetherolf, told HuffPost in a statement that she thought Wagner's helicopter flyover was from the Onion when she first heard about it.

"Sadly, this is actually something that an elected PA state Senator did, totally unaware of just how tone deaf it made him appear," she wrote. "Gov. Wolf has his hands full trying to reverse the damage that Corbett caused, and I hope Wagner's colleagues can work with Wolf to pass a budget that will address the needs of the struggling PA schools that Wagner didn't bother to include on his helicopter tour."

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