Monday, January 15, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: The other half of the school tax problem

Ask the average Pennsylvania resident what they consider to be the most important issue facing the state and nearly all will tell you it's high property taxes.

Most blame the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell for failing to provide meaningful tax relief despite years of promises. You remember Rendell's famous tap dance during last year's debate with GOP challenger Lynn Swann: "Let's begin with the proposition that no governor over the past 50 years who promised tax relief" kept his word. I guess that lets Rendell off the hook when he promised to cut property taxes by 30 percent for every Pennsylvania homeowner.

Not a single Pennsylvania resident saw property tax relief during Rendell's first four years in office. And don't hold your breath Rendell will push for tax relief over the next four years. It's not on his radar screen. He'll be busy raising the sales tax or the gas tax or selling off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to fund his voracious spending appetite.

Same goes for the Legislature. Now that House members are safely back in office until 2008 and half the Senate has been returned to office for another four years, the urgency to do something about property taxes is gone.

Blame yourself for re-electing so many incumbents, especially Democrats, who have only given lip service to property tax reform. (Only 10 of 94 House Democrats supported the Commonwealth Caucus plan to eliminate property taxes by raising the sales tax when it last came up for a vote on June 13, 2006.)

The only recourse for voters in 2007 is to go after the other half of the problem. While state politicians have failed miserably to deal with property taxes, the people most directly responsible for burdensome taxes are the men and women who serve on your local school board.

Some 2,000 school board seats will be up for grabs across Pennsylvania in 2007. Here's your chance to make the incumbents who have voted repeatedly for double-digit property tax increases accountable for their actions.

And thanks to Act 1, also known as the "Rendell-Perzel Property Tax Shift of 2006," your local school board will soon be deciding which tax hike referendum it will put on the ballot for the May primary. Will you choose to pay more in earned income tax or personal income tax so a few senior citizens may see a few hundred dollars in savings on their tax bill?

That's essentially what Act 1 is: A plan to raise taxes on working Pennsylvanians so a few retirees can save on taxes. That's the best Rendell & Co. came up with in that "special legislative session on property tax relief" in 2006.

You can gripe all you want about high property taxes, but unless you're willing to run for your local school board with other like-minded residents who’ve had enough with runaway school spending, then don't complain.

Does Pennsylvania need 501 school districts, each employing a superintendent who makes $114,000 a year? That's just the average. Some superintendents are pushing the $200,000 mark. The highest paid superintendent in Pennsylvania earns $242,000 a year.

And every school district has a bunch of assistant superintendents who earn much more than the average worker in that district. Each district has a business manager and a transportation director and somebody in charge of the cafeteria, etc. Every one of those administrators enjoys high pay and great benefits, including pensions not available in the private sector.

Here's a few more interesting statistics about administrative costs from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association:

· Nearly three-fourths of school management positions earn in excess of $74,000 annually.
· The highest management salary reported was $243,360 for district superintendent.
· 74 percent of the 142,890 bargaining unit positions (primarily teachers) reported annual salaries of $42,000 or higher.

The nine members of your local school board are also the people who approve those multi-million-dollar "Taj Mahals" that pass for school buildings these days. And let's not forget the athletic facilities that could qualify to host the Olympic Games.

How much of your tax dollar goes to fund education (teachers, books, supplies) and how much goes to pay the salaries of administrators or covers the upkeep of grand palaces that school districts construct?

While I have the utmost respect for the job most teachers do, I still can't figure out why Pennsylvania leads the nation in teacher strikes when Pennsylvania teachers are among the highest paid in the country. The average teacher in Pennsylvania is paid $54,000 a year. Those numbers are from the 2005-06 school year, the most recent figures available. And while most teachers give 100 percent, few jobs allow you to take off three months in the summer. (The only other one I can think of is Pennsylvania legislator).

Not to get sidetracked, but for more information about why Pennsylvania usually leads the country in teacher strikes, check out this interesting Web site: http://www.stopteacherstrikes.org

The politicians in Harrisburg are safe for now, but it’s time to send a message to the school board members that "Enough is enough!"

Tuesday, Feb. 13, is the first day to circulate nominating petitions for school board elections in 500 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts (Philadelphia has an appointed board).

More than 2,000 school board positions across the Commonwealth will be on the May 15 Primary Election ballot, according to the Education Policy and Leadership Center.

Candidates can cross-file as both Democrats and Republicans, so these four-year terms on school boards are often won in the primary. There's no pay involved in serving on a school board, but somebody has to be the first line of defense in Pennsylvania's losing struggle with burdensome property taxes.

The battle is often won or lost at school board meetings.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at tphyrillas@pottsmerc.com

***
Returning to radio Jan. 19

I'll be the guest on the Nick Lawrence Show on WPAZ AM 1370 on Friday, Jan. 19, from 4 to 5 p.m. You can call in to the live broadcast with questions or comments at 610-326-4000. You can also listen to the show live on your computer by logging on to www.1370wpaz.com and clicking on the "live audio" button at the top of the main page.