Let’s make school tax history

sherrifs sale in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania

The School District of Jenkintown recently announced its preliminary budget, and it called for a 2.9% increase in our tax levy. Last year, the inflation rate stood at nearly zero. Some might argue, with some justification, that Jenkintown’s enrollment of only about 650 students barely qualified as a school district, and indeed, the education that they receive, while highly rated, looks and feels more like a private prep-school than your run-of-the-mill suburban public school.

Out of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, Jenkintown rates number 41. It proposes to spend almost $23,000 per pupil in the upcoming year. The district carries a debt load of over $1.2 million, and it currently seeks ways to accommodate a growing enrollment, much of it coming from families who rent. Families fleeing the Philadelphia schools have Jenkintown high on their list. Unfortunately, since they don’t buy homes to gain access to our school, this increase in demand has no affect on our housing values. They’re renting, which has the potential to further destabilize what people typically consider a close-knit community.

To give us some idea of how unsustainable this system threatens to become, we can simply refer to the School District’s own budget. Since 2012, total assessed value of the Borough has decreased by $6.3 million or 2% during a period of economic recovery and expansion. In that time, the school tax millage has increased from 35.1 to 38 — or almost 8%. The total school budget in that time has increased 15%, during a period of almost 0% inflation.

How does that impact us? The market value of our house in 2002 (a down year) was about $225,000. Sixteen years later, we might get (according to a real estate agent we spoke with) about $270,000. In that time, we have already paid over $40,000 in property taxes alone. We also upgraded our house with at least another $75,000 of improvements.

This puts us more than $65,000 in the hole. We will never recover our investment. And what about the property tax and mortgage interest deductions? They are already covered by the standard deduction, which we’d get if we lived in a tent.

We see little choice but to become supporters of House and Senate bills 76. This proposal would make the school tax history, replacing it with small hikes in the sales and income taxes. We all benefit from better schools, so why does their burden fall almost entirely upon property owners? We support the Pennsylvania Taxpayers’ Cyber Coalition’s efforts to make this happen.

For most of the history of western civilization, only the wealthy owned property. Levying a tax served as a form of income tax, since those who owned property generated income from it. That changed with the rise of the middle class and the industrial revolution, but it changed wholesale after World War II thanks to the GI bill and the home interest deduction.

With property ownership within reach of most working Americans, local governments continued to apply a 17th century solution to a 20th century problem. The spread of suburbs sliced and diced sparsely populated farming communities into thousands of taxable subdivisions, while zoning out rental properties. In prosperous times, this works more or less, but when the housing market tanks or school costs rise faster than property values or people leave the region, we find ourselves in exactly the predicament now facing Pennsylvania. No amount of tinkering with formulas will fix this. Only HB76 will.

No tax should have the power to force people from their homes. The time has come to make the school tax history.