Lower Merion School District Argues Case in Harrisburg for Reinstating Tax Increase Thrown Out in August

An attorney for the district argued before a state appeals court that there is a "mistaken characterization" of the effort and funding that came before a tax increase was approved. A Montgomery County judge threw out the increase in August.

Jane Broderson and four other Lower Merion residents trekked to Harrisburg on Thursday for a state appeals court hearing on the township school district's recent tax increase.

Broderson and the other residents actually are in favor of a tax hike that was thrown out three months ago by a Montgomery County judge. The group, who call themselves "Save LMSD," said the rejection in late August of a 4.4 percent increase jeopardizes the affluent town's ability to "provide the best possible education to students."

"He wants no kindergarten, no AP classes, no honors program, no athletics," Broderson said of attorney Arthur Wolk, who successfully sued to have the tax rescinded. "That is not what we want."

The hearing once again pitted the district against three taxpayers who claim school officials have mischaracterized district finances -- to taxpayers and state oversight officials alike -- for the last decade while building up large reserves.

Lower Merion's attorney Alicia Hickok, hired for the appeal, argued that the case so far has relied on a "mistaken characterization" of district spending and savings put forth by Wolk during the initial case before Common Pleas Judge Joseph Smyth and again Thursday.

She also argued that Smyth sidestepped the authority of local elected officials and state oversight.

"Judge Smyth said he could second-guess the (Pennsylvania) Department (of Education. But he doesn't have the authority to do that," Hickok said.

The residents shook their heads as Wolk in turn told a three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court that he took the district to court for reasons bigger than the tax bills of himself and the two other taxpayers named as plaintiffs.

"In fact, I represent 20,000 taxpayers," Wolk, a township resident, told the panel, referring to all of Lower Merion's property owners who pay school taxes.

A ruling by the panel of judges is not expected until the new year. Based on their questioning of Hickok and Wolk, the two sides said there could be several outcomes. In addition to Lower Merion's appeal to have its tax increase reinstated at the rate adopted in the summer, the judges are considering two motions by Wolk to: reject the appeal based on procedural technicalities in the aftermath of Smyth's ruling; and ignore briefs filed by three state education associations, including the Pennsylvania teachers' union, in support of Lower Merion.

The groups claim Smyth's ruling amounts to "judicial meddling" in the affairs of an elected body that acted within its constitutionally protected powers.

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