Jenkintown School District

Stepping on Jenkintown’s political third rail

It’s time to talk School District and why the school tax is unravelling our community

Any discussion of Jenkintown inevitably leads to how much the community values its tiny little schools, and if the school has any shortcoming at all, it’s an unnamed need not yet met. By most measures, Jenkintown schools fare well in most state-wide comparisons of test scores, and everyone from parents to administrators to realtors all but fly those results up a flag pole. In the minds of many here, why mess with success?

During the last election, Pennsylvania voters approved a referendum that allows governing bodies to eliminate property taxes as a method of funding schools. In Jenkintown, we saw not a little hand-wringing over this. When I volunteered at the poll in Ward 2, I watched a school board member point to that question on the sample ballot, emphatically telling a hapless voter in a tone normally reserved for pedophiles, that “this question scares the hell out of me!”

Of course it does. Without its power to tax, a school board becomes properly focused on serving only the interests of students — not the administration and not the teachers union. A rationally empowered school board deals exclusively with curriculum, oversight of the administration, and it represents the educational concerns of the parents — full stop. It submits a budget like any municipal department to a higher, more objective authority and must then live within that budget. As someone who always has to deal with limited budgets, I can tell you it forces you to become resourceful and smarter about your job. Do you really think that a school board populated with people in or connected to academia — most with no kids in the system(!) — and who never have to worry about paying the light bill can properly represent those who struggle to live here?

Prop 1285 won’t by itself actually do much, especially here in Jenkintown, but it did serve to gauge support for a real solution to the school funding problem, the passage of the Property Tax Independence Act (PTIA), also known as HB/SB 76. If enacted, all funding for public schools in the state, with some exceptions, will come directly from the state. And yes, our school board truly hates this. No one likes to be stripped of their power, no matter how much they abuse it.

The reasons often cited against passage of 1285 and eventually HB76 strain credulity, and typically reveal someone who failed to even read the proposed bill, relying instead upon the PSEA talking points. If one reads the actual bill, every argument against gets shot down.

Fallacy: “The only folks that may benefit from this bill are retirees in big houses. The rest of us will suffer. “

If HB76 passes, our household will get upwards of a $4,000 tax break. Yes, according to HB76, income and sales taxes do rise, but the poor don’t pay income taxes, and if they don’t get stupid with money, they’ll pay almost no more in sales tax. In our case, we’d have to buy $85,000 of taxable merchandise to pay the equivalent amount of taxes.

Every year in Pennsylvania, more than 10,000 homes are listed for auction at sheriff’s sales. Many of those homes had no mortgages. The owners couldn’t afford the school tax.

Fallacy: “They will raise our income taxes (which is a volatile source of revenue) and sales tax.”

Is the property tax a stable source of revenue? Not according to the Brookings Institution.  Right in the first paragraph of this article, Brookings shoots down that assumption:

More than in past economic downturns, state and local governments were a prominent casualty of the recent recession. States in particular saw their revenues plunge. Although state taxes have been rebounding, local property taxes have dipped, consistent with a two- to three-year lag between home prices and property tax rolls. These reductions coincide with state cutbacks in local aid, further squeezing local budgets.

In other words, property taxes enjoy no immunity from the effects of an economic downturn.

The tax bill before Congress may indeed do away with the property tax deduction, but we don’t itemize so we never claimed it anyway. We are solid working class. We will surely benefit financially from the elimination of the school tax. If you make more money than us and you itemize, then we no longer have to pay so much of our income to educate your kids.

Fallacy: “The money has to come from somewhere. That sounds like unicorns and fairytales to me.”

Indeed it does have to come from somewhere, but by what reasoning should it come primarily from homeowners? Ethically, how does one justify that when everyone benefits from public education?

As I previously wrote here:

For most of the history of western civilization, only the wealthy owned property. Levying a tax served as a form of income tax, since those who owned property generated income from it. That changed with the rise of the middle class and the industrial revolution, but it changed wholesale after World War II thanks to the GI bill and the home interest deduction. With property ownership within reach of most working Americans, local governments continued to apply a 17th century solution to a 20th century problem.

Property taxes also fuel the spread of sprawl and gentrification, driving out long-time owners who can no longer afford rising assessments. Not too long ago, a drive from Willow Grove to Doylestown took you through beautiful pastoral landscapes. Today, it’s a vehicular meat grinder thanks in part to the property tax system.

If HB76 passes, here’s what happens to the JSD:

Not enough that anyone will notice. HB/SB76 freezes the budget at existing levels when the bill goes into effect. All increases in school budgets are tied to the rate of inflation.

Please note that because the School District has leveraged itself so heavily, Jenkintonians will continue to pay a property tax until the district has paid down those debts. However, the law prohibits adding to the burden without a local referendum. Also, the JSD may not expand its budget beyond state allocation without a local referendum. In other words, we all finally get a say in the matter. Anyone who objects to that objects to democracy in action.

Fallacy: “But what about renters? They also pay through their landlord.”

In no way does a family of four living in a three bedroom apartment of any size in an apartment complex in Jenkintown pay the same amount of property tax levied upon a typical three-bedroom free-standing house in this town. Our total property taxes amount to about $7,000 on a 1300 square-foot house. We have one kid in the system, so this funding scheme really hurts us.

Scare Tactic: “It’s going to be a windfall for businesses”

Unless you haven’t driven up Old York Road in the past 20 years, you know that Jenkintown needs more businesses, and the ones it does have need to do better. Putting more money in the pockets of people who employ others, invest in our town, and create wealth can only benefit the community. Plus, under HB76, the wealthy will pay more in income and sales tax.

Scare Tactic: “It will hurt our kids.”

The quality of a child’s education is mostly determined by parental involvement and not by the amount of money lavished upon each student. Jenkintown spends $26,000 per pupil. The highest ranking school in Massachusetts spends $16,000. Last year, our new superintendent sent out a letter boasting of Jenkintown’s ranking among high schools. The number one school in that list spent $13,000 per pupil. How many times do we guild the lily before it collapses under its own weight?

I am a product of a large school system. I graduated with over 400 classmates from an inner-city high school. I went to a university of more than 20,000. Yet, despite these setbacks in my education — at least by Jenkintown standards —  I have learned to question every assumption and to challenge every status quo. We used to call that critical thinking. When confronted with a phalanx of emotional individuals who insist that I am wrong, I instinctively know I’m on the right path. I know that the sky will not fall. It never does.

Our kids will be fine. If their parents have more money in their pockets, I’d argue that they’ll be far better off. If there’s one thing that Jenkintown can be proud of is the level of parental involvement, which is the real reason our school does so well in the rankings. It can only enhance their education to experience economic diversity rather than see it driven out.

Read the facts here.