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Fair funding for districts needed

This article was reviewed by the Summit Hill Borough Council and was unanimously approved at a meeting March 22. It is the borough’s reasoning for passing Resolution 2 of 2021, Resolution in Support of Equality for the Fair Funding of Pennsylvania School Districts.

While this article details Summit Hill’s position, this underfunding is occurring across the commonwealth, putting at risk lower- to middle-income school districts throughout the state as well as the municipalities surrounding them. All Panther Valley communities, Summit Hill, Nesquehoning, Coaldale and Lansford, have unanimously passed this resolution.

By Summit Hill Borough Council

One month ago, we read about the problems Panther Valley was having with its budget and the possible large tax increase that would be needed to meet budgetary needs to provide a well-rounded education for our students. A double-digit property tax increase was proposed and was quite alarming. Some of us researched why this was happening and what we learned disturbed us, not only as residents but also as elected leaders.

What we learned

For the most part PV’s expenses are mandated and outside of their control. There is little frivolous spending. With some of us having children in the district we know the services are minimal compared to when we attended school there.

Their budget is lean, however they are forced to spend money on regulations imposed by the state and federal governments, which don’t back up their directives with funding to implement them. It falls on districts to do so.

Second, we discovered that Panther Valley is being underfunded like almost all school districts in Carbon and Schuylkill counties. Based on the state’s own laws that determine funding, PV is underfunded by $10.5 million each year. The local taxpayers are providing $11.8 million dollars, according to the 2019-2020 audited financial statements. Historically the state and federal governments provided most of the educational funding. Today studies show the federal government provides about 4% and the state about 36% funding, respectively.

We found if the school’s taxes continue to increase at such alarming rates, it would not only be a threat to having a properly funded school district, but it directly threatens the taxpayers of the school district with the possibility of losing their homes due to an inability to pay the increasing taxes. If taxpayers start to abandon their homes or lose them to foreclosure, this will cause the property tax values overall to decrease.

This will cause the rest of us to have to pay even more in taxes and lead to a death spiral of a diminishing base of taxpayers, declining property values and inversely higher taxes for the fewer and fewer people remaining.

The lack of a secure school district also threatens the ability to gain new residents into our communities.

Negative effects

As this tax base decreases, it not only negatively affects that school district, but it also affects every municipality served by those school districts. As Summit Hill’s elected leaders, we have taken an oath to serve the people of Summit Hill and to provide for their health, safety and welfare.

This impending fiscal crisis is a direct threat to our residents’ safety and welfare. It is a threat because if we lose this taxpayer base, we also lose our ability to provide the required services needed to maintain our communities. No one is safe from this threat.

Next year, the projected real estate taxes alone are budgeted to be $9.5 million for Panther Valley. If we were to receive the state’s full funding of $10.5 million mandated by their formula, that would be more than enough to cover most of the property owner’s taxes.

While it wouldn’t eliminate taxes, it would make them a small fraction of the cost they are today and solve this impending crisis.

PV is not alone; this issue is facing most commonwealth school districts, and the solution is right there. If the schools were fully funded properly, ever skyrocketing property taxes would cease to be a problem.

The commonwealth is required by its own Constitution, Article 3, Section 14 to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.

Fair funding?

The assembly passed a fair funding formula which it continues to ignore. Over the past decade the Panther Valley School District has been underfunded a total of $10.5 million dollars - a total of $105 million. It is not alone.

Many of the districts in this commonwealth, especially those in more rural or poorer areas are underfunded. This has created a threat not only for the school districts in this county but those across the commonwealth.

This threat to our taxpayers’ security is a grave concern to us as the elected leaders of our community. To that end on Feb. 21, the Summit Hill Borough Council adopted Resolution 2 of 2021 demanding the Fair and Equitable Funding of Pennsylvania School Districts.

How to fix it

We went on record to demand equity for our taxpayers, to demand the state fix these funding issues to make our school districts secure. We want the equity the state promised to provide. We contend our students and taxpayers are NOT being fairly treated.

The subjectivity of property taxes overfunds wealthy school districts and threatens the well-being of impoverished school districts. This inequity violates the state’s own mandate from its Constitution.

We demand they fix this problem and stop mistreating the taxpayers in our communities. If it continues, this problem will become a threat to the safety and security of not only our borough but most boroughs and townships in this commonwealth.

This resolution and a letter demanding the issue be addressed and resolved has been sent to our state legislators and the governor and may be forwarded to other bodies as well.

We have taken a stand for taxpayer equality and demand that the state fix this problem permanently. We want them to stop punishing our taxpayers with unfair property taxes while they continue to inadequately fund our schools.

This needs to be fixed.

If it continues, not only are school districts’ futures threatened, so are our communities. As elected leaders, it is our duty to speak out and protect our people. We intend to carry this resolution to as many municipalities as we can, but we as your leaders cannot do it alone.

We urge all of you to write letters to your state representatives and senators demanding they use the Fair Funding Formula for 100% of state education funding fixing the property tax problem by following their own laws.

The Assembly can solve the problem by acting on behalf of its residents and making all commonwealth children’s education their priority.

We need to do this for our children and our future. We need you to support your local officials and raise your voices. Please do this not for us, but for yourselves.

The problem is not property taxes, it is priorities.