More than half of Lancaster County school districts decided not to raise property taxes this year despite unpredictability surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
With projected revenue losses in the tens of millions of dollars, according to one statewide agency, local school boards appear to have prioritized homeowners, many of whom are also reeling financially, in their 2020-21 budgets.
“We have a lot of people who have lost their jobs, a lot of people who can’t open their businesses, and they’re struggling, plain and simple,” Penn Manor school board President Carlton Rintz said.
Penn Manor is one of 10 county school boards that voted against a tax increase this year. Like many districts, Penn Manor utilized a portion of its fund balance, a so-called rainy day fund, to help balance its budget instead of raising taxes.
The school board in June decided to keep property taxes level by a 5-4 vote. It was a change in tune for Penn Manor, which has hiked property taxes over the Act 1 index, which sets a limit on how much a school board can increase taxes, for the past four years as it saved for its $99.9 million high school renovation and construction project.
“This is a rainy day,” Rintz said, “and the taxpayers need some relief.”
School districts, however, could use some relief, too.
According to an April report from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, Lancaster County school districts could lose more than $46 million next year in local revenue next year due to the economic fallout from the health crisis.
Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts could lose up to $1 billion, the report states.
To absorb some of the blow, at least seven county school boards – Conestoga Valley, Donegal, Elizabethtown Area, Lancaster, Manheim Township, Pequea Valley and Solanco – agreed to raise taxes.
Elizabethtown Area’s 2.75% increase is the county’s largest. The board also approved a nearly 4% wage increase for its superintendent.
Board President Terry Seiders said the district needed more tax revenue to save up for construction projects at the high school and middle school.
“At the end of the day, we still have an obligation to our community to be able to fund our education,” Seiders said, adding that he understands that people in the community “are not doing as well as they had been.”
At School District of Lancaster, the county’s largest school system, the school board approved a 1.87% tax increase to help combat a $13 million deficit.
“We wanted to put the tax increase at 0% for the community during these tough times,” Lancaster board President Edith Gallagher said. “However, as we learned more about the longer term economic outlook, we felt that we could not, responsibly, move forward with a 0% increase.”
Gallagher added that the economic downturn could last several years, which could force the district to make “significant use” of reserve funds.
“Now,” she said, “we just have to hope that the community, the state and the country can bounce back from this economic hole.”