School Saga Continues: Lower Merion Accused of Not Heeding Court Ruling

The school district is not adhering to a court ruling, according to the lawyer who sued, and he claims it's going to hit taxpayers' purses once again.

The lead plaintiff in the ongoing battle to have Lower Merion School District lower its 2016-2017 tax rate says the district has yet to abide by court rulings, and taxpayers are going to pay the price once again.

Attorney Arthur Wolk, who is also a township resident, filed a motion Wednesday that claims the district is about to vote on a new budget for the upcoming 2017-2018 school year that incorrectly applies the previous year's millage rate. He said using that old rate ignores court rulings that found Lower Merion must lower its previous budget.

"The status of the case is they lost twice and they’re not being honest with the taxpayers," Wolk said.

The district has asked for Commonwealth Court to re-consider their appeal, which that court rejected earlier this year.

The entire tax mess remains in limbo, and at the heart of Wolk's newest motion is the millage rate system upon which an entire municipality's tax revenue is based. Wolk is arguing that the district is using a millage for the new budget that is based off the rejected 4.4-percent tax increase last year. 

In turn, the new budget's tax rate is higher than the district claims. He also claims the rate again goes above an annual cap set by the state Department of Education without the district holding a referendum that asks for township voters' approval.

A spokesman for the district said in a statement that Wolk continues "to press baseless claims" while the appeal process continues.

"The District has repeatedly and explicitly demonstrated the justification for its proposed millages and has acted transparently and lawfully at every step of the budget process," according to a statement from district spokesman Doug Young.

The district's board of directors is expected to vote June 12 on final approval of the 2017-2018 budget, which takes effect July 1.

Wolk believes that because the district is using the wrong millage, the proposed 2.99-percent increase for taxpayers is actually 5.04 percent.

The district, in the statement, however, argues that the proposed tax increase for the next school year is 2.48 percent, which falls below the state cap and doesn't require a referendum or use of any exemptions.

"This is further evidence of the District's commitment to fiscal responsibility during a time of uncertainty and unprecedented enrollment growth," according to the district statement. "In fact, tax increases over the most recent three-year period (including 2.48% proposed for 2017-18) are among the lowest in the last 25 years of District budgeting."

In rejecting the 2016-2017 tax increase of 4.44 percent, Common Pleas Judge Joseph Smyth ordered the district to give back roughly $4 million to taxpayers. That amount was ordered held in escrow while the district appealed Smyth's ruling. A three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court ruled not to overturn Smyth.

The district asked that the entire nine-judge Commonwealth Court re-consider the panel's opinion. An appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court could follow if the lower appeals court decides not to re-consider.

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