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Politics & Government

School Officials Lobby To Keep Taxing Abilities

Mary Wilson

Tiny preschoolers and K-12 school students took Monday off to join school board members and exasperated parents calling for an end to the state budget impasse, as Gov. Tom Wolf signaled a budget deal wouldn’t be ready before December. 

Members of the advocacy coalition known as Campaign for Fair Education Funding fanned out throughout the Capitol building to meet individually with their lawmakers and ask for a finalized state budget.

“If this doesn’t get done soon, there will be a domino effect of school districts unable to meet their fiscal responsibilities,” said Bill Haberl, superintendent of the Pen Argyl School District in Northampton County. “And I see that happening very quickly between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

But the meetings with lawmakers were also an attempt to lobby against a rumored piece of the emerging budget agreement that would make school districts put every new property tax hike to a voter referendum.

School board members say it’s a bad way to try to provide lasting property tax relief, because such referenda rarely approve a tax increase. Without local revenue options, school districts could be left without the money they need. 

Kathy Swope, a member of the Lewisburg Area School Board in Union County, said local control of property taxes is crucial – and is already kept in check by voters.

“If we get it wrong -- and my fellow school directors will tell you this is true -- we will get phone calls at home, we will get stopped in the supermarket,” said Swope. “Ultimately, if we continue to get it wrong, they will vote us out.”

The lack of a state spending plan has left schools without state aid, forcing many to borrow money. But Governor Wolf tempered expectations for a Thanksgiving budget deal during a radio interview Monday and said it’s “more realistic” to expect a final plan by December.

“Honestly, I’m tired,” said Sheila Armstrong, a Philadelphia parent and one of the plaintiffs in a case before the state Supreme Court over schools funding. “I’m tired of coming to Harrisburg because people are not doing their job.”