Saturday, September 1, 2012

Was it ignorance or greed that led one Pennsylvania school board to keep a tax increase it didn’t need?

Was it ignorance or greed that led one Pennsylvania school board to keep a tax increase it didn’t need?

By Kim Schmidtner
Pennsylvania School Board Coalition
LENANON, Pa. – During the school budget season that ended last June, several local superintendents went on an “excuses tour” to explain why they had no choice but to raise taxes. Several of these excuses were listed in an earlier blog.

One of them was “cuts” in state education funding, including programs such as the Accountability Block Grant (ABG). We haverefuted the myth of “cuts” in K-12 Basic Education funding. In fact, every school district in Pennsylvania received more funding this year than they did last year, so there really weren’t any “cuts.”
However, it is true that the ABG, an optional grant program that began in 2004 that helped districts start pre-K programs like Head Start and institute full-day kindergarten, was discontinued. The final 2012-13 budget restored $100 million to this program and increased education funding above what was initially proposed. Therefore, many school districts that raised property taxes to fill this anticipated funding gap, saw the gap evaporate when the funding was restored.
Wouldn’t it be realistic, therefore, for taxpayers to expect at least the portion of their property taxes that went to make up for the gap in state funding to be rescinded? Not, in the Lebanon School District (or any district for that matter). The following is a report from Richard Mase, a newly elected member of the Lebanon School Board:
On June 28, The Lebanon School District passed a budget calling for a 2.6% tax increase to make up a $300,000 shortfall. The budget passed with a vote of 7 – 2.
At the July 23, meeting, Superintendent Dr. Marianne Bartley announced proudly that we received $900,000 more from the state than we anticipated. Upon further questioning by myself, Dr. Bartley admitted that the tax increase was not necessary. She justified the surplus by stating that next year the projected deficit will be $1.5 million dollars and then we won’t have as large a tax increase to cover that.
On August 20, we held our monthly business meeting of the Lebanon School Board…I made [a] motion to repeal [the tax increase] which was not even seconded.
Because no one seconded the motion, Richard’s attempt to repeal the tax increase died on the floor. So, taxpayers, how do you feel about an interest-free loan to the Lebanon School District? That’s essentially what the extra $300,000 you’ll be paying this year is. Do you really think the district will put this money in a lock-box and save it to use against next year’s assumed tax increase? Or, do you think it just sets a new baseline for your property taxes?
While Richard was disappointed that his fellow board members did not second his motion, he was not surprised.
One school board member after the meeting at least approached me to say she didn’t second my motion because we have building issues that could rear its ugly head at any time.
This of course is true. I have inspected the buildings myself and can verify that 2 of them have aging HVAC systems that could go out and replacement parts are not available. One building has a piece of HVAC equipment that has never worked and has been scavenged for parts for the last 40 years.
I am not surprised by my fellow co-directors’ not seconding my motion.
We at the Pennsylvania School Board Coalition (PSBC) are also not surprised. First, unlike Richard, most elected officials are not leaders. Most don’t like to rock the boat or challenge the status quo. Part of the reason is human nature. It’s difficult to buck the system and stick your neck out. You become a target who is relentlessly attacked by those who protect the status quo. Just ask the citizen legislators in the Upper Perkiomen and Catasauqua School Districts who successfully forced their boards to adopt a zero-tax increase budget. Or, ask Cynthia DiMiceli, board member for the West Hempstead Union Free School District in New York. She was denounced by the board President as an “insecure megalomaniac” who generates “unnecessary controversy” because she dared to inform the public about her concerns with a budget that failed to address structural problems that were leading to huge deficits in the future. Nobody wants to endure this type of bullying, so very few speak out.
Second, most school board members lack the proper training to understand the ins and outs of the district budget. This gap in training is purposeful. We have blogged about the poor training offered by the PSBA which encourages new board members to not concern themselves with the details of the budget and to trust the “experts” (aka administrators). This type of “dumbing down” of board members gives rise to a lack of confidence. This was one of the main reasons that the Pennsylvania School Board Coalition was started in the first place–to allow school board directors to gain the confidence, competence, and credibility necessary to institute reforms in their districts.
The lack of understanding is evident in the reason given to not second Richard’s motion. According to Richard, it’s true that the HVAC systems may need a major overhaul in the near future. However, according to the district’s budget posted on their website, they have a reserve fund balance of over $9 million. About $300,000 is tagged as “committed,” $6 million is “assigned,” and $2.7 million is “unassigned.” Typically districts use these fund balances for future contributions to PSERS or large capital expenditures (like replacing HVAC systems). So, it looks like the district may already have money set aside for the HVAC issue, so the 2.6% increase in taxes wasn’t necessary to fund this project.
Quite understandably, Richard also expressed his frustration with the local residents:
On July 24, the Lebanon 9-12 group held its monthly monthly meeting at which I informed the membership of the “good” news about the $600,000 surplus. I pleaded for people to show up at the next school board meeting to complain about the tax increase. I also promised to make a motion to repeal it……No one showed up [at the school board meeting on August 20] to complain….People complain about tax hikes. People complain about their school boards. [But], it takes more than voting in just one director to stop the madness. People must get involved. They must show up to both the work and the business meetings. They must request time to speak before the board and make their feelings known.
The price of freedom is vigilance. The consequence of apathy is slavery.
Richard is technically correct, more people should be attending
their school board meetings, if nothing else to video tape them. However, most Americans are busy trying to hold on to their jobs and spend what little free time they have with their family. Attending school board meetings is unfortunately not high on their list of things to do. Unfortunately, therefore, achieving large turnouts is not very realistic. PSBC’s Alternate Budget Strategy understands this and is designed to work without filling the school board meeting. In fact, the zero-tax increase budgets that were passed in Upper Perkiomen and Catasauqua were done without one citizen in attendance supporting the motion. Furthermore, they were achieved with a minority of fiscal reformers elected to the board.
It is also not enough just to show up at school board meetings to “complain about the tax increase.” The PSBC will be launching our School Board Initiative in a few weeks. At its core is educating the taxpaying public about realistic, common sense budget alternatives by exposing specific, non-educational, and many times wasteful, spending in the budget. Instead of lodging vague, unsubstantiated complaints about high taxes, I challenge the taxpayers in the Lebanon School District to get a few people together (you don’t need many) to put together an alternate budget to show Dr. Bartley in specific terms why a tax increase next year is not necessary. The $300,000 in surplus in revenue and the $900,000 windfall from the state, coupled with some targeted non-educational spending reductions in the budget, should make it relatively easy to develop an alternate budget that may even roll back this year’s unnecessary 2.6% increase. Wouldn’t that be nice? Do you think that could get the taxpayers fired up in the district? A REAL alternative they can understand that benefits them and preserved high quality education in their district. It CAN be done. We can help. And it only takes a handful of people. Are you up for the challenge?
Jim Rodkey, an active member of the Lebanon 9-12 group, said the following in a recent post on Facebook:
[The unnecessary tax increase] is controlling the locals not local control. This is in the midst of assessments that is driving the county to pitchforks and torches! They know people are furious about their tax increases and the appeals office is flooded but so what…screw the property owners! Kudos to school board director Richard Mase for at least standing up to make the motion! Thumbs down to the other 8 who wouldn’t even allow the motion to be further discussed!
Sounds like he’s fired up. Maybe he’ll work with Richard and the other “furious” people in his district to put together an alternate budget for next year. The time to start is NOW!

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