For the first time in four years, school taxes in
Pottstown are set to go up after June 30.
With a 7-2 vote Thursday night, the Pottstown School Board adopted a preliminary $62.7 million budget that will raise taxes by 3.5 percent — the maximum allowed by the state inflation index.
Board members Kurt Heidel and bonita Barnhill voted
against adoption of the budget.
Click here for a Twitter recap of the school board
For a home assessed at $78,890 — the borough median — that means a $98.56 tax hike for those which have been registered for the homestead exemption tax relief.
Assessment challenges cut deep
The chief culprit driving the hike are challenges to property assessments, according to Business Manager Maureen Jampo.
According to the budget presentation she made to the board Thursday
night, reductions in assessments and re-funds on
re-assessed properties cost Pottstown taxpayers a combined $2,188,607 in revenues.
In fact, thanks to those revenue losses, although expenses have risen almost $800,000 over the
current year, school district revenues are only $16,767 more than the current year’s budget.
Add on another $502,304 for salary increases and
the budget started off with a budget gap of $2,690,641.
A series of cuts — including a potential $78,000 savings by outsourcing the 14-member transportation department, and the use of $433,000 from the retirement fund reserve — brought the budget shortfall to $996,045, according to Jampo’s presentation.
No tax hike without hospital loss.
By unpleasant coincidence, that number is nearly identical to the tax revenue lost by the district’s taxpayers when the primary Pottstown Hospital property, assessed at $20.2 million, was taken off the tax rolls.
According to Jampo, that single loss accounts for
$936,996.30 in lost tax revenue in the coming year.
When the losses of other hospital properties taken
off the tax rolls are added in, the net revenue loss to Pottstown school
taxpayers is just over $1 million.
In fact, without the loss of the hospital from the
tax rolls, according to Jampo, the district would only have needed to come up with $36,263 to balance the next year’s budget.
Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez said if the board had instructed the administration to come up with a budget that did not raise taxes for a fourth consecutive year, “it would mean cutting programs. We have no other tricks up our sleeve.”
Unfair state funding
Another major factor affecting the budget and the
ensuing tax increase is the unfair method Pennsylvania uses to fund public
education, said school board member John Armato.
Pennsylvania is currently rated as the worst state
in the nation for the gap in funding per student between rich and poor school
To correct that problem, the General Assembly adopted a “fair funding formula” two years ago that corrects for things like high local tax effort, cost of living and poverty rates in specific districts.
However, the state currently funnels less than 10
percent of its education funding through that formula.
Were it in place today, Pottstown Schools would
enjoy a boost of more than $13 million in state funding.
Rodriguez confirmed that were the fair funding
formula fully implemented, the Pottstown School District could not only be
expanding programming, but providing a 30 percent tax cut instead of a 3.5
percent tax increase.
Advocacy for fair funding continues
That’s one reason, he said, he will be attending another rally in Harrisburg on May 26 with the Pennsylvania League of Urban School Districts, advocating for a fuller implementation of the formula.
“When you look at school funding on a per-student basis,” said Rodriguez, “55 percent of Pennsylvania students attend an underfunded school. That’s wrong and it has to change.”
Toward building that voice for change, Rodriguez issued a letter to the community May 11 in advance of the budget vote, explaining some of the factors driving
the tax increase.
Other than those already mentioned, those include a
higher-than-average percentage of special education and homeless students, an
ever-increasing number of things Harrisburg requires but does not pay for, as
well as the unfair funding issue.
“There is no question that traditional public education is under attack. However, our advocacy and our voice is critical in building our community, providing for our children and our students, and correcting an outdated education funding system that is hurting the students and citizens of our district,” Rodriguez wrote.
The letter, which urges residents to join the
advocacy efforts to provide fair funding for Pottstown schools, includes links,
addresses and phone numbers explaining the particulars of the problems and the
state representatives to contact about correcting them.
Not much local response
Hopefully he will have better luck getting
Pottstown taxpayers interested in the budget than he seems to have had so far.
The only member of the public to address the board
about the budget was David Miller, who questioned some spending, including the
$10,000 the district provides to Pottstown Area Industrial Development Inc.,
the economic development arm of the borough.
Miller, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board
in November and also applied for the vacancy created by the resignation of Ron
Williams, is also part of an elite group of three.
After months of debate, the district last month
issued invitations to 13 people to form a citizens budget advisory commission.
Miller is one of only three who agreed to help.
The other two are former board member Thomas Hylton, who also applied for the board vacancy, and Barth Elementary School teacher Kelli Wolfel, who also happens to be this year’s Teacher of the Year for the district.
“I informed the finance committee of the results and I think it’s safe to say they were disappointed,” said Rodriguez. “They indicated they wanted some time to think about what to do next.”
The school board will hold a final vote in June on
the budget and the ensuring tax millage of 40.6260 mills, which at this point
can be reduced in the final budget, but not increased.