Nearly 70 Delaware County educators, school board members and administrators assembled last Friday morning to air their objections to the proposed “elimination” of property taxes as the major source of funding for Pennsylvania public schools. Speaking at a press conference at the Delaware County Intermediate Unit in Morton, five speakers addressed various sources of concern and reasons to oppose Senate Bill 76. The bill, although barely defeated last session, is expected to be reintroduced during this legislative session by state Senator David Argall of the 29th district, in Schuylkill and Berks Counties.
The speakers’ objections are many, starting with the bill’s branding. “The truth is, this isn’t a tax elimination,” said Maureen Reusche, Haverford School District superintendent. “It’s a tax shift, and a shift which may not provide reasonable and realistic relief.” Reusche enumerated the components of a new school funding scheme she called regressive, including a rise in state sales tax to 7%, including now-exempt categories like groceries and funerals, and a 60% increase in Pennsylvania’s personal income tax, to 4.95%.
Wallingford-Swarthmore School District business manager Martha Kew echoed her opposition. “To call this bill property tax elimination is not true. It doesn’t eliminate municipal taxes, it doesn’t eliminate county taxes, and it would leave school districts with whatever their existing debt service is to be paid through local property tax.” She pointed out that local school districts would continue to tax residents to retire the bonds which districts have used to raise capital. In the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, this represents 13.4% of the current property tax allocation; in Chester-Upland, the proportion is nearly 40%.
While legislative sponsors aver that there will be no net change in the funds available to school districts — roughly $14 billion this fiscal year — professionals guiding and managing public schools are concerned that funds which flow directly to the state, to be returned as block grants to districts, may be reallocated according to political and ideological priorities. Several speakers characterized the scheme as a $2 billion annual windfall to businesses, whose lightened tax burden would be shouldered by individual taxpayers.
Others are concerned that the proposed realignment of funding ignores the problems of funding inequalities and inequity. Act 26 of 2016 created a new school funding formula to fund districts more equitably at the state level, reflecting the interest of legislators of both parties, school reform and tax reform advocates. Act 26 would be torpedoed by Act 76. William Penn School Board member Rafi Cave said, “A better educated community is also a healthier and safer community. Finally installing equity in the state’s revenue and funding practices in the neediest districts will benefit all the state’s students, taxpayers and communities.”
Dr. Maria Edelberg, director of the DCIU summed up the practical objections shared by most educators present. “When we hand over the reins of 500 different school districts to one governing body, we lose the local control that a school board has and in essence turn over the entire educational system to the state. What happens when school districts need to replace old buses, refresh technology, or repave crumbling parking lots or revise and update curricular studies? A state-driven, one-size-fits-all approach means that the communities and school board members that know their school district’s needs best have no means to budget or respond to the changing needs of their students.”