By Jon Delano, KDKA Political Editor
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A number of local school districts have asked permission to raise school property taxes significantly.
While Pennsylvania’s Department of Education won’t confirm this yet, KDKA-TV has learned some local school districts have applied – and received – exceptions to a state cap that limits tax hikes.
School district officials say they are caught between a rock and a hard place – especially as government mandates for special education and pensions go up and state support go down.
School districts across Pennsylvania are facing up to a budget reality from Harrisburg.
“The basic subsidy was decreased substantially and districts are struggling with it,” says Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
Hippert, a former South Fayette school superintendent, says districts are dealing with the loss of millions of state dollars.
“They’re really trying to be as creative as they can, but very concerned about the education for the children,” she said.
At one time, school boards could raise taxes as high as they wanted. That changed five years ago.
Under current state law, school districts are only allowed to raise taxes by an indexed inflation amount, generally around one to two percent this year.
But because of Governor Corbett’s education cuts and lots of unfunded mandates, school districts are feeling the pressure to raise taxes even more.
A loophole in state law allows districts with certain fixed costs to raise taxes above the inflation rate with state approval.
Local districts seeking that approval are Bethel Park, Elizabeth Forward, Franklin Regional, Freeport Area, Gateway, Highlands, Northgate, Riverview, and South Fayette.
Highlands has just been approved to raise taxes 14 percent.
“I don’t see that going to 14 percent,” Highlands Business Manager Jon Rupert told KDKA Money Editor Jon Delano.
Rupert says it’s not a done deal but the state keeps making things worse.
“Not only are the mandates required, they’re unfunded,” he said. “Then they pass Act 1 where you’re only allowed to increase revenues by the index and then come around and take a couple million dollars away from you.”
And no help from Harrisburg means program cuts and higher taxes back home.
“I’m very squeezed, yes. It’s just a matter of time before all the districts are squeezed.”
These are not the only districts applying for this exception and just because they get it doesn’t mean it will be used.
Here’s another wrinkle.
The deadline for applying for the exception was before Governor Corbett announced his budget, so that’s really pinching some districts that now have no alternative but to cut staff and programs.
Of course, educators are still hoping the legislature will reject the governor’s education cuts.