Delaware County Intermediate Unit (DCIU) Executive Director Maria Edelberg, last week, was joined by several county school district superintendents and school board members in expressing concern about education funding as well as a legislative proposal to be introduced in Harrisburg to eliminate property taxes.
“At the end of the day, ensuring that our students have a strong, sustainable education system is critical, and the current property tax elimination proposal fails to do this,” said Edelberg. “The plan is both irresponsible and inequitable for taxpayers, students and schools. It is more responsible for taxpayers and school districts for our elected representatives to consider the factors that are driving school district budgets instead of who divvies out the money.”
Edelberg said cost drivers include special education tuition payments to charter and cyber charter schools and pension costs. Instead of blanket payments for those schools for special education, Edelberg said she hopes legislators will embrace the idea recommended to them by the Special Education Funding Commission, and base payments according to three tiers. She urged the funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to the 40 percent promised in 1975.
Currently, federal funding for IDEA is only 16 percent, a figure $17.8 billion shy of the original commitment.
Edelberg also asked legislators to increase dollars for special education to assist school districts,
She said pension costs for the entire state have continued to rise. Employer contributions rose from $2.7 billion in 2015 to $3.3 billion in 2016. DCIU is spending $9.7 million toward pension costs this school year.
“We need to act now and urge our legislators to address the issues of meaningful pension reform for public school employees,” Edelberg said.
Introduced by state Rep. Jim Cox in early Oct. 2016, the Property Tax Independence Act would replace school district property taxes with other revenue sources.
The Act would increase state sales tax from six to seven percent and items such as gum, candy, magazines, newspapers, dry cleaning, laundry services, haircuts, clothing and footwear exceeding $50, and spectator sports admissions will be included. Food items such as fresh meats, produce, and dairy, most canned goods and packaged items without added sugar will be exempt.
Other items that will continue to be exempt include food stamp purchases, home heating fuels, utilities, health, hospital, and dental services, prescription drugs, home health care, tuition, day care, charitable organizations, and business-to-business transactions.
Other speakers included Larry Feinberg, member of the Haverford School Board and founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition; Bernadette Reiley, superintendent of the Interboro School District; Dr. Stephen Betz, superintendent of the Southeast Delco School District; Rafi Cave, school board vice president, William Penn School District; and Dr. Maureen Reushe, superintendent, Haverford School District.
“The current system of paying for charter and cyber schools places an unfair burden on our schools and in order to balance competing financial priorities, school districts must be afforded relief from the flawed charter school funding formula,” Reiley said. “…Our school districts (Delaware County) sent nearly $18.8 million to cyber charter schools in 2015-2016. For charter schools, the non-special education cost per student increased from about $7,300 in 2001 to $13,000 per student in 2015-2016. School districts pay approximately twice as much per special education student in charter schools than they do for non-special education students.”
Butz said that since the 2014-2015 school year, pension costs for all Delco schools have continued to rise to around $170 million, which is nearly five times the 2009-2010 costs.
He said districts have been forced to cut critical programs as a result and have been unable to expand programs in the areas of STEM education, which is in great demand.
Cave discussed inequities in the current education system, and Reusche said the proposal is not, in fact, tax elimination, but rather, a tax shift.
“Despite the promise of property tax elimination, the taxpayers in many school districts across Pennsylvania will continue to pay property tax to the district in an amount that will cover the cost debt that was incurred before Dec. 31, 2016,” Reusche said. “… In Delaware County, each of our 15 school districts will have to continue collecting some portion of the existing property tax. The percentage of property tax remaining to cover existing debt across the 15 districts ranges from 7.58 percent to 39.75 percent. In addition we will be paying a higher sales tax.”