Bucks County Herald

Charles Meredith:

Fair tax for education


Dear Friends,

Good morning. Last week, my book club discussed an excellent book, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”

The 221-page book (fiction) by Mark Haddon is told through the eyes of a brilliant teenager mathematician with autism. I have never known anyone with autism but have a friend whose grandson is affected by it. The friend belongs to our bookclub and told us that the book was accurate.

Each year, Philadelphia recommends a book for its residents. A year or two ago, “The Curious Incident…” was the choice. It has also appeared as a play. In any event it sparked a lively discussion and it will for you too. I encourage you to pick up a copy.

On another topic, a few weeks ago, the Upper Bucks Chamber of Commerce and Grand View Hospital sponsored an event that featured the Bucks County commissioners discussing current topics. Commissioner Chair Charles Martin emphasized the success of the Agricultural land Preservation Program, which has preserved more than 16,000 acres and 199 farms.

Ten years ago, Bucks County voters approved a 10-year preservation project through a bond issue. While the bond issue money has been spent, the county will continue to acquire land in the years ahead. We don’t know whether there are immediate plans to seek taxpayers’ approval for another bond issue.

Fifty years ago, my fellow commissioner, Joe Canby, told me that open space does not require the building of schools or roads or water and sewer projects. Farm animals only require room to graze. That’s why it’s so important to keep development at bay.

But in the meantime, the cost of running our public schools is growing each year. The Quakertown School District has raised property taxes every year for more than a quarter century.

For years, I’ve been recommending that the Pennsylvania Legislature abandon the property tax as the principle source for public school funding by substituting a tax on income (or sales or both). I would have the state collect a public-school tax and send the appropriate revenue back to the 500 school districts on a per-pupil basis.

There’s plenty of disagreement about the fairness of my suggestion. In last week’s Herald, Jodi Spiegel Arthur wrote about a report issued by the Keystone Research Center. “The tax shift … designed to relieve senior citizens of the burden of property taxes … would mean an increase of $334 in taxes per family next year, with middle-income residents absorbing the largest tax increase as a percentage of their income,” the story warned.

“The proposed tax shift would distribute significantly more in state funds to higher-income areas that currently fund schools with higher local real estate taxes,” the report continued.
“According to Keystone, property taxes collected per students during the 2014-2015 school year ranged in Bucks County from $8,004 per student in the Bristol Borough School district to $17,792 per student in the New Hope-Solebury School District. In Central Bucks, the amount collected per student was $10,938.

And that’s exactly my point. It’s not fair. The school tax is based primarily on the value of real estate but the spending per student is not equal. Even though they’re only 20 miles apart, New Hope-Solebury can provide far more assets to its children than Bristol can.

Meanwhile, the Quakertown School District is facing a $4.7 million budget shortfall, which will require difficult choices. One of them is to close the Milford Middle School in September.

Another is to raise the real estate school tax by eight percent.

Paul Stepanoff and Charles Shermer, the school board president and vice president, respectively, sent a letter to district tax payers (March 29) which outlined the funding problems.

They also included this paragraph: ”The school board’s top priority is to achieve college and career readiness for every student, while at the same bringing fiscal discipline and efficiency in running the school district.

“For the past three years, the superintendent and his administration have done a remarkable job in controlling expenses,” the letter concluded. “Simultaneously, our students and teachers are doing a remarkable job in the classroom. In 2016, the high school was ranked #1 in Bucks County and #12 in Pennsylvania on the state’s report card.”

Be that as it may, Pennsylvania’s system of relying upon property taxes to fund public schools is just not fair. And there’s no remedy in sight as long as the legislators hide from tough decisions.

Sincerely, Charles Meredith

By the way, every time I read that the Bucks County Community College is raising tuition, I pause.

While the amount is small … an increase of $5 per credit … the costs to students and their families adds up. The good news is that the BCCC continues to be a remarkable bargain. The new cost means that a Bucks County full-time student who takes a typical 12 credits each semester will pay slightly more than $4,400 in tuition and fees for the next full school year beginning in the fall.
Compare that cost to $60,000 yearly for a private college.

What needs fixing is the share that Bucks County and Pennsylvania contribute to BCCC. When the college began in 1965, the Pennsylvania Legislature stipulated that students, Bucks County taxpayers and the state would each pay one third of the costs. That formula certainly changed drastically.

Today, BCCC receives almost 50 percent of its money from students, 27 percent from the state, 18 percent from Bucks County tax payers, and the balance in auxiliary sources.

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