Senate bill on school boards misses the mark

April 19, 2017

An editorial opinion from LNP Newspapers:

A bill in the state Legislature would make it harder for school boards to increase property taxes. Senate Bill 406 would require a two-thirds vote to approve tax increases, rather than a simple majority. That means for a nine-member school board, six votes would be required instead of five to approve an increase. The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the proposal March 29, and it is now headed to the full Senate for consideration.

The rationale goes something like this: Rising property taxes have become the millstone around the necks of property owners – particularly seniors. If a local school board is considering raising taxes, the process requires extended deliberation. Any decision to increase taxes should not come easily, thus the requirement of a two-thirds vote.

Senate Bill 406 is an answer to the frustration of homeowners but, in our view, not the right answer. Local control of our schools is important; school boards need some freedom to operate as they, and district taxpayers, see fit.

Taxpayers have the opportunity to elect their local school board members. They also have the opportunity to elect someone else if they don’t like the direction in which the board is taking the district. And changing the rules now would only make a school board’s job more difficult.

School boards have a lot of weighty issues to deal with in addition to taxes – whether to construct a new school, for example, not to mention the unfunded mandates from the state such as pension payments and special education costs. If a two-thirds vote is going to be required for a tax increase, why not for the passage of every other measure? Because it would be time-consuming, burdensome and business would grind to a halt.

“The one thing that the legislation is implying is that school directors are just raising taxes without much discussion,” Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokesman Steve Robinson told LNP. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Robinson is right. There’s nothing to suggest raising taxes is “too easy” for school boards.

Senate Bill 406 is well-intended, and we laud its sponsors for heeding the concerns of frustrated taxpayers. But if the state Legislature really wants to do something about property taxes, it needs to attack the issue at the choke point.

Republican state Sen. David Argall of Schuylkill County would like to eliminate school property taxes and replace them with sales and income tax increases. This approach would maintain local control over schools, and while it might not be a perfect solution, it’s one that merits serious consideration. Clearly, homeowners, especially seniors, need relief.

We hear our seniors, and we hope our lawmakers hear them.

No one disagrees on the urgent necessity of relief.

But making a local school board’s job more difficult would create yet another problem when there are already plenty of others that need attention.

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