Lower Merion School District Appeals Ruling that Overturned 2016-2017 Tax Hike

The Lower Merion School District filed an appeal Wednesday to a judge's ruling earlier this week that the district's tax increase is unlawful and must be rescinded as soon as possible.

The appeal seemed a foregone conclusion after the Monday ruling by Common Pleas Judge Joseph Smyth when the schools superintendent and the school board president issued a joint statement declaring the district "will vigorously defend its right - and the right of elected school boards across Pennsylvania - to approve budgets specific to the unique educational needs of local communities."

The tax increase rejected by Smyth was a 4.4 percent increase, which the judge ruled was larger than a state-mandated cap of 2.4 percent. The district, however, argued that the state Department of Education granted Lower Merion a waiver allowing for the higher increase.

Attorney and longtime resident Arthur Wolk, who argued the case, called the rejection of the increase "a gigantic win" for taxpayers across the state.

"It was much to my surprise," he said in an interview Wednesday.

But after a hearing this summer in which the school district business administrator admitted that the district has "between $50 and $60 million" in bank accounts, Wolk said the onus has swung completely back onto the district.

"He just spilled the beans, basically," Wolk said of administrator Victor Orlando's testimony. A surplus of more than $50 million would be double what the state DOE allows in reserves for a school district of Lower Merion's budget size -- $260 million. State regulations allow for 8 percent.

"Everything he says [while he was on the stand] is an admission and that's what really in my estimation changed the whole complexion of this case," Wolk said. "They're going to have a very rough time on appeal."

No date has been set for the appeal.

In his ruling, the judge ordered the school board to reject its tax increase for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, which began July 1, and revisit its budget. The district did not address that order in its statement Tuesday or in issuing its appeal Wednesday.

Superintendent Robert Copeland and Board President Robin Vann Lynch did say lowering the tax increase would mean $4 million less in its coffers this year.

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