Lancaster Blog
Independent Journalism Serving Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
Get Ready for a Push for More Property Tax Hikes, Lancaster County, Unless Republicans Can Block It

Get Ready for a Push for More Property Tax Hikes, Lancaster County, Unless Republicans Can Block It

Public schools aren't sacred cows - time to make some sacrifices
By Trey 29 comments

Unemployment may be more than 20% and people may be tightening their belts because of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 heavy-handed lockdown, but some school districts in Lancaster County are looking to raise taxes next year and at least one Republican wants to stop them.

The Hempfield school board voted this week to approve advertising a proposed final budget for the 2020-21 school year that includes a $6.5 million budget deficit and a 1% tax increase that would raise the annual tax bill for a property valued at $200,000 to $3,302.

For those who are learning this like me, Hempfield School District is a school district of about 6,800 students with 10 schools. It employs more than 500 teachers, from preschool to 12th grade.

The projected revenues for 2020-2021 are $122,185,050, with total projected expenditures of $128,776,643. The district spends about $16,116 per pupil as of 2016, the latest year for which data are available. Nationally, the most recent data indicates $11,762 is spent on public education per student

The board is scheduled to vote on the budget some time before June 30.

“With so many revenue unknowns as a result of COVID-19, we are looking at a variety of possibilities to close (the deficit gap), including evaluating all open staffing positions, conducting line item expense reviews related to new programming and purchasing requests, and investigating ways to reduce costs through our transportation budget,” district spokeswoman Shannon Zimmerman said in a written statement.

Between now and the final vote, district officials plan to review and adjust the budget, as well as take into account local conditions such as unemployment and state/federal COVID-19 related aid.

For instance, school districts in Lancaster County are getting about $15.4 million in one-time, emergency federal funding because of the COVID-19 pandemic, of which the lion’s share is going to the worst district in the county – the School District of Lancaster. Fully $5,172,788 will go to the School District of Lancaster, which is already supported by the property taxes it pirates from homeowners (who mostly don’t have school age children or don’t send their children to public school!) for its massive $210.6 million budget. 

All that said, the school district’s push to raise taxes may run up against a push by State House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, who is backing legislation that would force the state’s 500 school districts to freeze their property taxes next year.

Cutler says school districts should take from their rainy-day funds rather than raising taxes, which is the smart thing given how hard unemployment has hit the Keystone State

And he’s right.

That said, it’s frustrating that it got to this point, because the unfair school funding system in Pennsylvania harms all property owners.

If we must have public schools – their funding needs to be more fairly spread around than the ancient system Pennsylvania has now.

State Sen. David Argall (R-Berks, Shuylkill) is trying once again to push through a tax reform policy that makes a lot of sense. The tax reform bills in the state legislature, SB 76 and HB76, would eliminate the property tax in favor of reforms to the state income and state sales tax.

“There just has to be another way to fund our public schools. The current system is unfair and very outdated–with its roots in the 1600s, and it hurts homeowners throughout the state,” Argall said. “This time around my colleagues and I will be meeting with every member of the Senate–including all of our new freshmen as well as our most senior veterans to ask if they could vote for the bill.”

Variations of this tax reform approach have been tried in past legislative sessions, often falling at the last minute to parliamentary tricks or single vote losses. (Good grief, the list of those who oppose property tax reform is a freak show of special interests and socialism advocates.)

Anyway, the goal, Argall says, is to eliminate all school property taxes across the Commonwealth and replace those taxes with a combination of funding from changes to the existing sales and income taxes.

A full account of how his plan would work can be found here.

Anyway, Cutler is right. School districts shouldn’t be milking the taxpayers for more, when they haven’t made meaningful cuts the way families and businesses have had to, and especially not when they are wasting their funding on superfluous programs.

Times are tough. Public schools aren’t sacred cows.