For two months now, parents and officials of Lower Merion schools have waited for a court ruling on this year’s tax increase.
The wait is proving as hard as any eventual fallout for those on both sides. Social media attacks have ramped up and a group of parents called Save LMSD even erected the billboard along Lancaster Avenue earlier this month.
Drivers heading east at Anderson Avenue get a quick glimpse of six children holding their hands over the mouths accompanied by the words: “Save Our Schools. Save Our Community.”
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This being Lower Merion Township, there are indeed a group of parents arguing for higher taxes. On their website, they tout being 2,743 strong -- and counting.
They are pitted against a group of taxpayers who sued successfully last fall that the school district disingenuously raised taxes above a state-mandated limit. The tax opposition leader is a longtime township resident and lawyer, Arthur Wolk, who told the appeals court Dec. 15 that he “in fact, represents 20,000 taxpayers.” He was referring to all tax-paying property owners.
Some argue that the eventual ruling by a panel of three Commonwealth Court judges could decide how much power local school districts have to tax and spend.
But maybe, if we’re lucky, the ruling will shine some light on a state education system that pretends to put limits on local school spending. The state’s supposed cap on local tax increases is actually about as strong as the tape you would run through at the end of a marathon.
In Lower Merion's case, the school board raised taxes 4.4 percent last June. That’s 2 percent above a 2.4-percent cap that the state Department of Education put in place for Lower Merion around this time last year.
Like one-third of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, Lower Merion received approval to circumvent the state cap. Lower Merion’s superintendent, Robert Copeland, has argued that unprecedented student population growth and rising pension costs have contributed to the need for higher taxes.
But there is no clear evidence that the state does any real vetting of a school district’s finances before rubber stamping the exception approvals. Take what Springfield Township’s school finance chief, Ken King, told me last fall.
“All you have to do is complete the form. That’s it. We don’t use exemptions. We don’t like to use them. But you start the budget process in October with very little known. There are a lot of things outside our control. Just to be safe, we file for exemptions,” King said.
While Springfield may not use the exceptions, plenty of other schools do -- like Lower Merion.
And if King’s right, then why does the state bother putting a limit on how much Lower Merion schools can raise each year?
As is often the case in the state offices of Pennsylvania’s education apparatus, the answer might be somewhere in the cauldron of bureaucracy. But it sure isn’t easy to figure out.
A DOE spokeswoman said “the Department used its electronic, web-based data-reporting system, the Referendum Exception System (RES), to receive and approve referendum exceptions. … The electronic system automatically calculates a school district’s allowable exceptions.”
In other words, a computer does the work.
An NBC10.com analysis found the number of districts receiving approval, 178 this school year, is on the rise.
And who really can blame them? The system is designed to be bypassed.
Worth noting: There is another way to increase taxes instead of the state’s computerized rubber stamp.
State law says school boards can also put a new tax hike to a referendum of all local voters.
But, hey, who wants to go through that trouble?
Brian X. McCrone’s columns appear each Thursday in NBC10.com’s Montgomery County News section. In addition to the columns, McCrone and his colleagues at NBC10.com and NBC10 provide daily news and feature stories on Montco. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (610)668-5540. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.