Lehighton Area School Board President Rocky Ahner recently spoke again in the main rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. He joined other local officials from across the Commonwealth with a unified message for state lawmakers - prioritize investments in our schools, county health services, and infrastructure over new tax cuts.
The event was organized by Better Choices for Pennsylvania. According to the group, years of state tax cuts have shifted more costs onto local communities and taxpayers.
In his remarks, Ahner discussed how state cuts in funding affect Lehighton Area School District. "In our town - like in many other small towns across the state - a lot of families struggle paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet. That's why in these difficult times, it's hard for us when the state makes cutbacks and we have to pick up the slack."
Current state law will eliminate the capital stock and franchise tax - which is now at a record low rate - in 2014.
"The elimination of the capital stock and franchise tax is not the rational way of helping our children, seniors, and the overall health of our local economy at this time. This tax has been reduced 85 percent in the past 15 years already," said Ahner. "Yet, if frozen at current rate for the 2013-14 fiscal year, it would raise more than $350 million dollars to fund our schools and county health care services." He emphasized, "That is a lot of jobs!"
"Budgets are about priorities, and it is time for Harrisburg to put its priorities into what counts - schools, roads, and safe and healthy communities - so that we can move our state forward," said Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner. "While I certainly recognize the need for balancing budgets, budgets should not be balanced on the backs of our students, working families, and the elderly."
Wagner, who served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for the 22nd District from 2007 to 2012, noted that annual reductions to the capital stock and franchise tax have been paused in the past when the economy was in recession and state revenues dropped. With the state again facing fiscal challenges, she urged legislators to again delay this tax cut.
Parkland School Board Vice President Roberta Marcus agrees. "When Pennsylvania lawmakers do not raise the necessary revenue to meet the core priorities of the Commonwealth - such as the constitutional right of public education - the burden falls heavier on the local school district taxpayers."
Several other public school officials described how state cuts in funding, driven partly by state-level tax cuts, have cost their constituents.
School Board Vice President Jennifer Desmarais of the School District of Lancaster - the second oldest district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - said that among other measures, her school district has responded to state budget cuts by reducing library programs, eliminating elementary school Spanish, and increasing class sizes.
"Each year, the district takes numerous steps to approve a balanced budget," remarked Desmarais. "While I commend our administration and board's vision to keep programmatic and staff reductions furthest from the classroom, after years of modifying our programs, it has become nearly impossible for our students, staff, and our constituents - the taxpayers - to not feel the burden."
"Over the past three years, we have reduced our faculty and administration by 20 positions. What does this mean?" asked Dr. Robert L. Urzillo, superintendent of Blue Mountain School District. "We now have fewer electives at the high school, larger class sizes at the middle and elementary schools, and fewer classes per year in library and physical education at the elementary level."
According to Wagner, Governor Tom Corbett's proposed budget does little to address the pressures facing school districts and counties and does not go far enough to address the crisis facing transportation infrastructure in Pennsylvania.
"The budget retains nearly $2 billion dollars in education and health service cuts - with no long-term proposals to repair failing public schools," she said. "It offers us an incomplete transportation funding plan that falls well short of the money needed to bring Pennsylvania's infrastructure up to code."
With an enrollment of 2,320 students, Lehighton Area School District continues going through every line item in the budget and is also pursuing other avenues - such as advertising - to increase income. In addition, Lehighton Area School Board has been meeting with legislators to discuss budget cuts that are harmful to education.
"School districts in our area are using fund balances to balance their budgets in order to give taxpayers relief in this uncertain state budget," said Ahner. "As responsible school boards, we 'dig deeper' to keep drug and alcohol curriculum, after-school activities, and underfunded mandates that are essential to the education, safety, and welfare of our students."
According to Ahner, the capital stock and franchise tax is "the so-called 'job killer tax.'"
"So, my question to everyone is, 'If the capital stock and franchise tax is eliminated, what are the next steps for increasing jobs in our state?'" he asked.
"I am also a small business owner and I know that it takes more than low taxes to get companies hiring," concluded Ahner. "It takes multiple strategies to move the economy in a positive direction."
This marks the second time that Ahner has spoken in the main rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol. The first was back in March at event called "Pie Day." On that day, advocates delivered half a pie to every Pennsylvania legislator to help remind them that a decade of large tax cuts for businesses has left schools, health care services, and local communities with a smaller share of the budget pie.
"Again, it was an amazing experience - an honor and privilege that I was asked to attend, let alone speak as an advocate on behalf of education for the students of Pennsylvania," said Ahner.
Better Choices for Pennsylvania is a coalition of more than 50 groups statewide that support a responsible and balanced approach to the state budget. For more information about the group, visit www.BetterChoicesForPA.com.