Court confirms: Girard College not taxable

“The Spirit of Girard’ sculpture by Bruno Lucchesi greets visitors to Girard College, June 3, 2013. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected an attempt by Cumberland County to have Philadelphia's Girard Estate, which supports the Girard College free school, declared a taxable entity.

Cumberland had cited 1800s legal claims that Girard was private, which the school had cited in the 1950s when it was trying to remain all-white. But the court, in its opinion overturning a Commonwealth Court appeal decision called that attempt "a fool's errand," noted Girard affiliates "historically have not been subject to local real estate taxation," and added that Girard's governing board is considered a state agency under the federal tax code. The General Assembly would have to change that, the justices added. 

The 57-page decision, mostly written by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, is "a tour de force by the chief justice," said Stephen Cozen, of Philadelphia law firm Cozen & O'Connor, who argued the case for Girard. The decision noted a negative ruling could have changed the tax-exempt status of $110 million in tax-exempt bonds issued by Girard in the 1980s-90s, in an attempt to boost investment returns. 

Cumberland County challenged Girard's tax exemption because Girard owns property in the county, near Harrisburg, which the county said should pay real estate taxes to support local schools and government.

In a brief statement, Board of City Trusts President Ronald Donatucci said the decision would help Girard College. The school plans to shut its boarding program next year and focus on updating its aging 40-acre North Philly campus.