School District Survey In PA: Property Taxes To Keep Rising

06.06.14 | Sarah Harnisch

Pennsylvania school officials estimate the cost of educating students will rise again this year, and they pledge more local property tax increases despite significant reductions in faculty, staff and resources.

That forecast was the result of the fourth annual survey of school district budgets from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

More than three-quarters of respondents said they plan property tax increases next year, the highest figure in five years. About 280 of the state's 500 school districts responded.

In Allegheny County, 25 school districts reported property tax increases between 2007 and 2014 ranging from a 2.1 percent bump for South Allegheny to a 32.8 percent rise in South Fayette, according to a study the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy released this week. Property tax rates in 16 local school districts fell during the same period.

“We approved a small increase, so we should be OK this year,” said Beaver Area School District Superintendent John C. Hansen. “But we're probably being optimistic.”

Budgets will remain tentative until state leaders cement the education budget. The deadline is July 1.

“Since it's an election year, we will probably get something close to (Gov. Tom Corbett's) proposal, but that doesn't bode well for the future,” Hansen said. “It's all stopgap right now. If nothing changes in Harrisburg, it's going to cost everyone, especially the students.”

School boards in Indiana County's Homer-Center and Monessen, Greater Latrobe and Norwin in Westmoreland County all passed or considered similar tax increases in the past month.

In 2010-11, the local tax burden accounted for an average of about 37 percent of school budgets statewide. Local residents this year shouldered an average of 45 percent of the total.

“Unfortunately, this year's survey results show that the landscape has not changed and the financial condition of school districts across the commonwealth continues to deteriorate,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Association of School Administrators.

Buckheit and others said the lackluster economy, reduced levels of state and federal funding, dramatically rising pension costs and other mandated fees are leading to cuts.

Total state spending rose from $4 billion to nearly $67 billion from 1970 to 2014, according to Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based free market policy group.

“This decades-long spending pattern has placed an undue burden on the backs of state taxpayers,” he said in February, just after Corbett proposed a $241 million bump in education spending. “Pennsylvania has the 10th-highest state and local tax burden in the nation. ... Unless we break this cycle, we threaten the prosperity of Pennsylvania families and generations yet to come.”

About one in seven districts plans to furlough teachers. That means class sizes will increase, which has occurred in 64 percent of responding districts since 2010-11.

The survey shows that nearly 60 percent of school districts have furloughed staff since 2010-11; more than 40 percent of the furloughs affected classroom teachers. Seven in 10 districts have not filled positions vacant because of retirements and resignations, and about 25 percent of respondents reported ongoing hiring freezes.

The survey finds that cuts likely will affect 370 academic programs, including Advanced Placement courses, business education, dual enrollment, foreign languages, music, theater, online learning, physical education, kindergarten programs, special education, extracurriculars and athletic programs.

Schools have reported an additional 783 cuts to academic programs since 2010-11.