Op/Ed: How mandates raise your local school taxes

By Lisa Longo, President, Phoenixville Area School District Board of Education

Lisa Longo

Do you wonder sometimes why property taxes increase? I did and I decided to start attending school board meetings to understand. That was seven years ago. Now, as a member of our school board, I can share what I have learned.

I discovered a large part of a school district budget is mandated. Congressional and state legislators impose regulations that dictate many of the services school districts must provide. Sadly, many of these mandates are not funded, or are only partially funded. This is why they are known as “unfunded mandates”.

School districts are forced to raise taxes locally because by law they must balance their budget. So every time Congress or State legislatures mandate a service or test, or they cut education funds but not the mandate, they force a local tax increase. And while the claim is that testing is to ensure schools are meeting basic standards, or that charters and vouchers simply offer “choice” when public schools aren’t “performing’, the fact is, these cost taxpayers millions, stress our students and some say, waste both time and money. Certainly we need to question why funds are being diverted from public schools to for-profits, especially cyber charter for-profit entities which aren’t meeting even basic standards.

If the argument is that charters are needed because schools aren’t performing, why are we funding charters that aren’t performing? And tuition to charter schools is a very large unfunded mandate in many school districts, costing more than standardized testing in many cases.

While legislators keep putting new and different standards on public schools, they argue that for-profit charters should be exempt from many of these same standards. They argue that public schools are spending too much, which isn’t true, then say that cyber charters, which fail to meet even basic standards, deserve more funding. Why do legislators want to force school districts to give money to for-profit and cyber charter schools that may be exempt from meeting the very standards they mandate for public schools?

Forcing school districts to pay for school “choice” and “vouchers” is not fiscally responsible. And we should all tell legislators we don’t want our local tax dollars funding for-profit schools while taking funds from our public schools. Our local tax dollars need to stay and support our local community and students. If they want to mandate these schools, then they should have to fund them from their budgets, not ours.

As I speak with taxpayers one common response is, “Well, why don’t you just cut spending? That is what I do, if I need to, I cut my spending.” Fair enough, and we try to do that as well. But there are only a few areas we can cut, remember those mandates. After that we are talking about quality of life for our students. Do we want to cut all activities?  Do we shut the library? Shut down extra-curricular programs? Increase class size? Or can we ask those that mandate the spending to fully fund them so they don’t force local property tax increases?

We must be mindful of our children and insist legislators recognize the harm they do when their mandates create massive anxiety because of testing, increasing class sizes, teacher shortages, uncertainty around the affordability of college and the future job market. We must also be mindful of our taxpayers, particularly those on a fixed income. Unfunded mandates force property tax increases and hurt everyone, but especially retired, disabled and Veteran taxpayers who need our help, not tax increases. By creating deficits, unfunded mandates force local property tax increases, it is that simple.

None of us want to pay “more” taxes. We must understand why local taxes increase. It is not the fault of our children or our teachers. Ask legislators to fund their mandates. In Phoenixville Area School District that would fund  $3.5 million of mandates in our budget for last year alone. By insisting Congress and state legislatures fund their mandates we can begin to have a truly balanced budget.

Contact legislators and tell them, no more unfunded mandates and stop balancing budgets on the backs of our children.

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  1. Lisa Longo says:

    Dear Mr. Knauss, the reality is before we do anything our budget has a deficit of at least $3.5 million due to unfunded mandates. That is a simple fact.

    Our staffing levels are based on creating classrooms that have a balanced number of students. There is a lot of research that shows that class size has an impact on everything from student achievement to homework, to stress levels in students.

    Our challenge is to balance the well being and safety of students against fiscal responsibility. I simply do not believe we should balance our budget on the backs of children, it is much more balanced to simply ask legislators to fund their mandates.

    Please do join us at our budget meetings, I would be happy to answer your questions and review the documentation and budget.
    Lisa Longo

  2. Keith Knauss says:

    Instead of blaming Phoenixville’s tax woes on “outside” factors such as unfunded mandates, charter schools and vouchers, Ms. Longo might want to look at the “inside” factors that she and her fellow school board members have failed to control. In particular, Phoenixville is overstaffed (teachers and administrators) relative to EVERY other district in Chester County. If the Phoenixville school board wants to control taxes they should first look at their own staffing levels since employee compensation typically is 70% of the district’s budget.

    Data: Information from the PA Dept of Ed shows that Phoenixville employed 348 professional personnel to educate 3,796 students in the 2016-17 school year. The average district in Chester County would have only needed 312 employees.

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