Pennsylvanians are once again being reminded this spring that they never actually own their homes; they only “rent” them from their local school board.
As school districts across the commonwealth demand hundreds of dollars in additional property taxes from senior citizens living on fixed incomes and from working families already hit with a 10 percent increase in the state personal income tax this year, taxpayers are begging Harrisburg for some relief.
Homeowners in 44 other states enjoy some degree of protection against outlandish school tax increases. However, there is absolutely nothing the average Pennsylvanian can do—short of trying to remove spendthrift board members—to keep from being taxed out of their homes. Indeed, it is the unilateral power of school boards to raise taxes, without the direct consent of the people, that has burdened Pennsylvania homeowners and taxpayers with the third-highest per-pupil revenue in the nation and the highest teacher salaries in the country, when adjusted for the cost of living.
Yet even while Pennsylvania public school spending ranks among the highest in the nation, our students’ academic performance, according to the SAT college entrance exam, ranks among the five worst states in the country. So, as long as it remains an article of faith that more dollars will somehow produce more scholars, Pennsylvania homeowners must, in effect, hand over the titles to their homes to their local school district and continue paying ever-increasing “rent.”
Fortunately, some relief may be on the way from Harrisburg in the form of taxpayer referendums on school tax increases. Despite the aggressive lobbying efforts of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association to retain limitless taxation power, Gov. Rendell and leaders in the General Assembly want to empower citizens with some limited control over future property tax increases.
Although the governor will attempt to exempt as many budgetary issues as possible from a vote of the people, the support for giving taxpayers a voice in school tax increases remains high among most Harrisburg policymakers.
Of course, the PSBA/PSEA cartel enjoys the status quo and is attempting to obfuscate the issue. One of its primary arguments against direct taxpayer participation in school tax increases is the claim that districts must continually raise taxes to pay for unfunded state and federal mandates. Yet many years ago, Pennsylvania implemented a Mandate Waiver Program that grants districts relief from state mandates “if the waiver will enable the applicant to improve its instructional program or operate in a more effective, efficient or economical manner.” However, only 91 of Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts sought mandate relief in 2003. Of those that did, nearly 90 percent were approved by the Department of Education. Apparently, school boards would rather complain and blame mandates for their profligate ways than actually seek remedies.
But even if the public school lobby’s claim of onerous mandates is taken at face value, school boards still retain complete control of more than 80 percent of their budgets—the portion consumed by overly generous collective bargaining agreements, costly non-instructional services, and inefficient management practices. The problem then is not so much a lack of revenue and flexibility but a lack of political and fiscal courage on the part of school board members.
As one Southeast Delco school board members observed, “Today, when a school board sits down with unionized teachers, janitors, bus drivers, or cooks, there is a blank check lying on the bargaining table. The goal of the union is to fill in the highest amount possible—and when school boards are not required to get taxpayer approval of lucrative union demands, there is little incentive for board members to say ‘No’ to higher taxes. Hence, it is no wonder that many school employees receive compensation packages that far surpass those available in the private sector. Voter referendum can only help us thwart the fiscally irresponsible deals pursued by labor unions.”
Not only do many board members recognize the need for continuous taxpayer involvement, but taxpayers who already enjoy such protections through the underutilized Act 50 overwhelmingly embrace them. Last fall, the board of the Central Dauphin School District wanted taxpayers to relinquish their veto power over extravagant tax increases. School district residents responded by a voting ratio of nearly 9-1 in favor of retaining their control.
Although the ability to vote on school tax increases does not change the fact that homeowners will continue to “rent” their homes from the school district, at least referendum provides taxpayers with some measure of “rent control” over their school district landlords.
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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and public school board member, is president and CEO of The Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), a public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. Permission is hereby granted to reprint in whole or in part, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.