29 Pittsburgh-area school districts get state OK to exceed cap on tax increases

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

State education officials have given more than a third of Pennsylvania's school districts — including 29 in the Pittsburgh area — permission to raise property taxes higher than a predetermined cap would allow.

A 2006 law — Act 1 — requires districts to keep tax increases within a so-called “index” that limits the amount they can levy based on a formula calculated by the state.

To increase taxes above the cap, districts must get an exception from the state or ask voters to approve a referendum, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education.

Exceptions are granted if districts need the money to:

• Meet pension obligations.

• Pay for special education.

• Make payments on previous construction debt.

• Pay for construction that was approved by voters.

“The law is a balancing act between residents' ability to pay taxes versus what schools need to continue operating,” Eller said. “It's there to keep school boards from increasing spending at alarming rates without giving voters a say or having it subject to checks and balances.”

But just because a district gets an exception does not mean it will use it, Eller said.

This school year, $48.2 million of the $159.9 million approved, or 30 percent, was spent by districts.

In 2011-12, $95.5 million of the $265.8 million, or 36 percent, in approved exceptions was spent.

While the board of the Franklin Regional School District in Westmoreland County approved a preliminary budget this year that would require voters to approve a tax increase above the index, district officials have no plans to seek it.

“We had to make that decision on whether or not to apply for the exception,” said Jon Perry, the district's business manager. “We have no intention of utilizing it.”

Act 1 requires districts submit a preliminary budget in February. But a final budget does not have to be approved until June 30.

Franklin Regional's preliminary budget for 2013-14 earmarked $528,473 in spending that exceeded the state index and would require a 1.57 mill tax increase above the 3.33 mill hike already called for in the spending plan.

The state approved raising taxes by only 1.48 mills, which would leave a $30,507 unfunded hole in the budget.

A mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value.The South Fayette School District had $914,255 in its preliminary budget that exceeded the state index.

The state approved raising taxes by only 0.3 mills above the index, which leaves $567,685 in the budget that is unfunded.

“We continue to make cuts in our budget and will work to avoid having to go to taxpayers for more money,” Superintendent Bille Pearce Rondinelli said. “Our only goal is to whittle it down.”

Staff writer Amanda Dolasinski contributed to this report. Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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