Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why Are Our School Taxes So High?

Photos by Evan Brandt
Roger Eppehimer, right, addresses a panel gathered by Pottstown Schools Superintendent, standing, to discuss why school taxes are so high. Seated, from left, are Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg and Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center and state Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-26th Dist.

If the only thing we can be sure of in life is death and taxes, almost as assured is kaleidoscope of answers you'll get if you ask a related question: "Why are my taxes so high?"

Nevertheless, out of foolishness, bravado or a genuine desire to break the status quo log jam that is choking opportunity in Pottstown Schools, Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez put that question front and center Tuesday night at a special forum of the same name.
Here are just a few of the reasons.

To provide the nuanced answer that rejects the knee-jerk responses of "administrator salaries," "teacher salaries," "Harrisburg," he assembled several speakers to provide context.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg and Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center and state Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-26th Dist. provided that context and it quickly became obvious that there is on one thing that is the cause.

Similarly, Rodriguez was quick to point out that "there is no villain, no demon we can go after."

Instead, he said, what's needed is a way to lessen the burden on the local taxpayer, either through more aid from the state -- which is warranted under the Fair Funding Formula -- or fewer unfunded mandates.

Pottstown Schools he said, not only produced the third consecutive budget with no tax hike, but also cut costs. Nevertheless, because of things out of their control, like pensions, costs still went up.

"There are only two ways to reduce the tax burden, increase our revenue from state aid, or reduce the things we have to do, but are not paid to do," he said.

Urevick-Ackelsberg and Churchill focused primarily on the state revenue side of that equation, pointing out that the state Legislature has never asked "what do we need to provide for schools?" instead taking the position in a current lawsuit that Pennsylvania's only obligation "is to keep the lights turned on."

This comparison shows that even with more state aid 
per student and a higher tax rate, Pottstown still has
less available to spend 
per student than a wealthier
district like Colonial.
Because only 6 percent of state education funding is distributed according to the year-old "fair funding formula," poorer school districts continue to struggle; pay the highest taxes and even labor under a racial bias in how funding is distributed, they said.

"Pennsylvania is considered one of the worst, if not the worst, state in the nation for the gap in funding between rich and poor districts," said Urevick-Ackelsberg.

For example, Pottstown Schools would get $127 more per student under the budget proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf, but the formula indicates Pottstown needs $3,765 more per student, said Churchill.

That adds up to $13 million more per year Pottstown would receive if all state education funding were distributed through the formula.

For his part Hennessey noted that 37 percent of every tax dollar Pennsylvania takes in goes toward education. He noted that for the most part he agrees with the activists about schools in Southeast Pennsylania not getting a fair shake.

That is brought about by the political reality of control of the leadership by central and western lawmaker who not only have a "bias against the Southeastern region," but are never going to vote to take funding away from schools in their districts to send to the Southeast.

Nevertheless, said Rodriguez, Pottstown and similarly affected districts, must continue to advocate for fairness.

That effort is scheduled to continue this morning at 10 a.m. 

That's when Pottstown High School will be one of several locations statewide where the Campaign for Fairness in Education Funding will stage press conferences to highlight the inequities in Pennsylvania's school funding.

In the meantime, here are the Tweets from last night.

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