Tax re­form need ur­gent

The Times-Tribune - - EDITORIAL -

P rop­erty own­ers across Penn­syl­va­nia don’t need a think tank study to in­form them that their lo­cal school taxes have risen over the last five years, which is the case al­most every­where.

But a study by Tem­ple Univer­sity’s Cen­ter on Re­gional Politics of­fers a com­pre­hen­sive look at the de­gree to which failed state pol­icy ex­po­nen­tially has in­creased the pres­sure on lo­cal tax­a­tion to fund pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

Some dis­tricts, in­clud­ing Scran­ton, have se­vere fi­nan­cial prob­lems that ex­tend be­yond the sys­temic is­sues ad­dressed in the Tem­ple study. Scran­ton, for ex­am­ple, is un­der­funded by the state by as much as $32 mil­lion a year when com­pared with sim­i­lar dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral analy­ses by the district and state leg­is­la­tors. But even if that dis­par­ity is elim­i­nated, the district, like the other 499 statewide, still would be sad­dled with the prob­lems cre­ated by the state Leg­is­la­ture’s re­fusal to un­der­take sweep­ing re­forms.

Across Lack­awanna County alone, the study found, char­ter school tu­ition and pub­lic school em­ployee pen­sion costs in­creased by $17.4 mil­lion from the 2012-2013 through 2017-2018 school years, whereas the ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing in­creased by $10.6 mil­lion. Over that five-year span, school prop­erty taxes coun­ty­wide rose by $22.7 mil­lion.

That flows di­rectly from the state Leg­is­la­ture’s re­fusal to fully cor­rect the pen­sion re­form dis­as­ter it cre­ated in 2001, when it mas­sively in­creased ben­e­fits for leg­is­la­tors and state and school em­ploy­ees while ir­re­spon­si­bly fail­ing to fund those in­creases. Now, every school district in Penn­syl­va­nia must bud­get an amount equal to an as­tound­ing 34% of its pay­roll to cover the cost of that greed and in­com­pe­tence. Yet the Leg­is­la­ture con­tin­ues to tin­ker around the edges of re­form in­stead of read­just­ing the ben­e­fits as part of com­pre­hen­sive re­form.

Like­wise, law­mak­ers have re­fused to re­form the char­ter school sys­tem so that dis­tricts must pay them per-stu­dent tu­ition based on the char­ter’s ac­tual costs. In­stead, each district must pay based on its own cost-per-stu­dent, which inevitably is higher than char­ter costs. The dif­fer­ence is scores of mil­lions of dol­lars a year statewide and will only get worse un­less law­mak­ers finally base tu­ition on the char­ters’ costs.

Ac­cord­ing to the Tem­ple anal­y­sis, dis­tricts that now pay char­ter schools $1.65 bil­lion a year in tu­ition will pay $2.32 bil­lion within five years.

That is dou­bly prob­lem­atic be­cause, over­all, char­ters have not demon­strated that they de­liver ed­u­ca­tion su­pe­rior to that achieved by con­ven­tional school dis­tricts.

By the 2021-2022 school year, the Tem­ple study found, lo­cal school taxes will rise by $2.8 bil­lion statewide, while pro­jected in­creases in state fund­ing barely will keep pace with pro­jected in­creases in char­ter school tu­ition alone.

Mean­while, some law­mak­ers con­tinue to pro­pose sim­ply elim­i­nat­ing lo­cal prop­erty taxes and shift­ing the bur­den to the state gov­ern­ment through in­creases in state-level taxes. But the ob­jec­tive also must be ad­e­quate ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, and mul­ti­ple stud­ies have shown that the pro­posed tax shifts will fail to do that within just three years of their adop­tion.

Par­tial prop­erty tax re­lief must be part of a com­pre­hen­sive pack­age of re­forms that in­clude sweep­ing pen­sion and char­ter school revisions to re­flect the re­al­ity on the ground.

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