Before 2017-2018 state budget talks even begin, administrators in Bucks County school districts are worried about the immediate future of education funding in the state.
During a press conference held last week by representatives from the Bensalem, Centennial, New Hope-Solebury and Quakertown school districts and the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, officials expressed their concerns as they begin to work out their own district budgets.
“Budget revenues are not meeting their expected targets, so here we are again in uncertain times,” said Tom Seidenberger, one of eight Circuit Riders in the state, a group that advocates for fair funding of Pennsylvania schools.
Pennsylvania public education is facing problems like rising mandated costs of pensions, special education and healthcare along with the emergence of charter schools, pressures which have caused local districts to impose property tax increases through recent years.
There’s another external problem for schools: The state is on track to fall well short on expected revenue this year, and the budget deficit is projected to balloon to over $1.5 billion next year.
Gov. Wolf will deliver his budget address next week, and it’s a good bet that local school administrators will be listening closely.
In addition to the budget concerns, another that issue coming to a head is the reemergence of a proposed bill that could take away local school property taxes, as the Times previously reported.
The proposal, also known as the Property Tax Independence Act, would limit property taxes while increasing state income and sales taxes to 4.95 percent and 7 percent respectively.
Introduced by state Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill/Berks), the bill is expected to be voted on in the upcoming legislative session. A previous version was struck down in the state Senate by one vote in 2015, but Argall now believes it has the support to pass.
Representatives of local school districts disagreed with the proposed bill’s merit altogether.
“It is basically trickle down taxation,” said Centennial School Board member Michael Hartline. “The proof is in what you see.”
“When you look at infrastructure, our roads our bridges, other problems that we have … to turnover control of $15 billion dollars to an organization that is going to have a structural deficit of $1.5 billion, that just scares me.”
Centennial Superintendent David Baugh argued that “property tax elimination,” the phrase touted along with the proposed bill, is “more than a little misleading.”
“They are not going away and will continue to rise even if this bill passes,” Baugh said. “Townships and counties can still raise taxes without the checks on increases that school districts already have.”
Bensalem Superintendent Sam Lee was absent from the press conference due to responsibilities in his home district, but Bensalem was represented by school board members Anand Patel and Wayne Lewis.
Lewis argued that this tax change has been talked about for over a decade and legislators still haven’t done enough to deal with pensions or charter school funding.
“The state can’t control their spending on those issues, how will they control the funding of school districts?” Lewis said. “You’re taking away the responsibility of school board members to control and educate the children in their districts.”
“I can’t see how it’s going to work its way out. They ought to fix their house first before they try to fix ours.”
One example these educators gave on their responsibilities to local taxpayers is the Bucks and Montgomery County Schools Health Care Consortium. Comprised of 22 districts from both counties, it represents 11,000 school district employees and covers 29,000 people.
Mark Hoffman, executive director of the Bucks Intermediate Unit said that the consortium has saved more than $30 million for its school districts since it was founded in 2012. He projects an additional $21.5 million in savings over the next three years.
Supporters of the bill might argue that decreased or eliminated property taxes would help seniors on fixed incomes sustain themselves, and this is the way the state wants to alleviate those rising costs.
“You have winners and losers,” Quakertown Superintendent William Harner said. “When you add in the sales tax, that burden is going to shift to the young. The burden is going to shift to the young for Social Security.”
Harner said that the promise in the proposed bill that retirement income won’t be taxed might be giving seniors false hope.
“The system can’t be sustained with that,” he said. “Once we get property tax elimination on the table … they’re going to go after senior citizen income, because they have to.”
As their budgeting future remains unclear, school leaders will continue to meet with Pennsylvania legislators to seek an alternative solution.
Right now, what that could be seems as ambiguous as their financial futures.
“They’re being barraged with phone calls and emails and they simply don’t have answers to give us,” said New Hope-Solebury Superintendent Steven Yanni. “They’re not giving definitive answers because they don’t have definitive answers to give.”