Sued once over school tax increases, Lower Merion calls for another hike above state cap

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After being sued for raising property taxes above the state cap last year, the Lower Merion School District — which lost the case — is proposing to do the same to fund next year’s budget.

On Monday night, about 200 people packed into district headquarters in Ardmore to hear administrators made a brief pitch for their $266 million budget proposal for 2017-18, a 7.2 percent increase over the current school year. The tax rate would go up 2.99 percent, meaning a homeowner with a property at the median assessed value of $250,000 would pay an additional $205.

Last August, a Montgomery County judge ordered Lower Merion to roll back its 2016-17 property tax hike from 4.4 percent to 2.5 percent – the maximum increase permitted by the state without a special exception. The lawsuit had been brought by a small group of township residents who charged that the district had hidden large surpluses while raising taxes sharply since 2006. Last week, a Commonwealth Court panel dismissed the district’s appeal, citing a procedural problem.

At the Monday hearing, Superintendent Robert Copeland argued that rapid growth of enrollment and capitol expenses, coupled with insufficient state funding were driving the district’s tax increases. Lower Merion will again need to ask the state for an exception to raise taxes above the cap.

The 8,400-student district — Pennsylvania’s most affluent — is committed to maintaining class size and its plethora of unique academic programs, according to Copeland. In touting its schools’ excellence, “I would argue the proof is in the pudding,” he said, to applause from the audience.

A majority of the parents and residents who rose to speak backed the district’s argument that steadily increasing property taxes over the last decade are the price for delivering high student achievement.

The ongoing tax lawsuit “is about depriving other people’s children of a great education and giving them a basic one instead,” said Daniel Marein-Efron, of Wynnewood. He said that property taxes in Lower Merion are comparable to other Montgomery County districts and that any mandated cuts would disproportionately affect poorer, non-white and disabled students.

Minimal details of the budget proposal were offered only after a lengthy presentation by middle school students in the district’s special integrated programs. It was nearly 9 p.m. before the contentious budget back-and-forth got underway.

Several speakers expressed support for the legal challenge led by aviation attorney Arthur Wolk of Gladwyne, who has charged that district officials claimed budget deficits that didn’t exist to justify exceeding the state cap on tax hikes. Those levies have risen by 53.3 percent since 2006.

Wolk was not present, but another plaintiff, Philip Browndeis, read a scathing letter from Wolk who has vowed to sue the township again if it does not change its budgeting practices and continues to raise taxes.  

Many speakers pointed out that they were not arguing for program cuts or smaller class size, which is how the school district and its supporters have framed the debate. They say they are proud of the schools, but that the school board has misled taxpayers by projecting large deficits to justify raising taxes, when it actually had socked away millions in reserve.

Bruce Bowman said he appreciated his son’s education in Lower Merion schools. But the issue, he said, was whether the community believed the board’s argument that its budgeting practices were appropriate. “You’re losing the trust of the community,” he said.  

Another speaker, Rose Serota, said,  “This pits neighbor against neighbor…People are looked at as enemies.” Serota said that if the school board continues to fight the lawsuit, “I think you’re doing a disservice to the community.”

“It’s not that we want less of a quality education, but an education that is fair to all the people who live here,” said Brad Moser, of Gladwyne, who graduated from Lower Merion High School. He said his mother was going to lose her home because of high taxes and urged the board “to respect the elders in the community.”

 Matt Birch, a Lower Merion teacher, said he relocated to the district after fighting for three years to get his son extra help in a neighboring school.  He said his son was now a junior who takes advanced placement and honors courses. “I moved to this district for my children to get the education they deserve,” he said.

When someone in the audience asked him the percentage tax increase being proposed, Copeland declined to answer until directed to do so by the school board president.

After hearing from several speakers that the district kept $60 million in its reserve fund, Copeland finally said that figure was inaccurate. It was $55 million, he said, eliciting some laughter from the audience.

He also said the district “continues to be as transparent and efficient in the use of public funds as we have in the past.”

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