Your boss has squeezed your paycheck over the last decade so that it hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Child-care costs are through the roof, health-insurance outlays are sucking you dry, and the act of buying a modest home in the suburbs is so out of whack that desperate winners of bidding wars are all but throwing in their firstborn child to close the deal.
Not enough stress and humiliation?
The declining middle class can now add this to that panic-inducing reality: Suburban school districts have been tapping them out, too. And it’s time to fight back.
Looking to solve problems that lawmakers are either too ideological or too chickenhearted to fix, districts across the Philadelphia region have been imposing annual tax hikes so large over the last decade that they outstrip the earnings growth of many people trapped in the mirage of what used to be the American dream.
The way to make it stop must begin with that notoriously out-of-sight-out-of-mind creature known as the Pennsylvania suburban mom and dad. There’s a ton of you out there who are falling asleep on the job. You wouldn’t believe the people I meet who, even with master’s degrees, have no idea who represents them in Harrisburg.
This Great Suburban Force must do more than inhale a Facebook feed’s worth of Trump headlines, or chest-pound about Washington, and call it citizenship. You must make your kid’s traveling soccer-league tourney Second Priority to demanding solutions from politicians.
The message should be simple: Make public schools a priority — or else.
Local school tax increases have totaled more than 40 percent over the last decade in districts such as Upper Dublin in Montgomery County, Haverford in Delaware County, and Centennial in Bucks. That trio imposed the highest cumulative hikes but were by no means alone in digging deep into local taxpayer pockets, colleague Megan Bobrowski reported for the Inquirer.
“In the last decade, school property taxes in the 60-plus districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have jumped 25 percent — in some cases better than 40 percent — outpacing inflation at a time when enrollments have been stagnant,” the analysis found.
School boards are doing this for good reasons.
About 70 percent of school budgets are covered through local taxes, with the state providing only about 30 cents of every dollar needed. In the early 1970s, when today’s senior citizens were raising today’s moms and dads, that split was 50/50.
Meanwhile, labor costs have increased. Unfunded mandates to provide unique instruction to children classified as special needs, as well as skyrocketing health-care and pension costs, are fueling a surefire disaster for taxpayers if things don’t change.
Districts have been pumping the local tap to make up for this and, in some cases, are forgoing building renovations and other improvements. It’s one reason why Abington School District officials said earlier this year they were willing to accept hard-negotiated conditions from Wall Street billionaire Stephen Schwarzman in return for $25 million to help build a new high school. The existing one dates to 1956.
Abington is right for understanding this much: If you overmilk the only cow in your barn, you just might kill it.
“What you’re describing is what I’ve said for a number of years,” the Pennsylvania Economy League’s school boards expert, Dave Davare, told me Thursday. “The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming freight train.”
The problem is that Abington and other districts shouldn’t be in such a position in the first place.
Nor should fragile families.
After the Great Recession of 2007-09, we saw without a doubt how wages for many in the middle class had stagnated for decades — something few people discussed because of the intoxicating stock-market bubble built on Wall Street speculation and securities fraud. Today’s midcareer workers have less income, wealth, and retirement security than the generation that came before them.
Meanwhile, local taxes are outpacing inflation, too.
What a bruising reality for anyone trying to raise a family today.
Davare let off an odd chuckle when I asked how long he had worked as research director before retiring in 2011 from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. More than 20 years, he said. He’s seen every policymaker punt imaginable. Steel mills closed, but Republican lawmakers led the resistance against taxing the new boom industry, natural gas, to make up for that lost tax revenue.
Our Republican-controlled legislature wants you, its bosses, to pay more so that the natural gas industry gets to avoid paying for the privilege of getting rich off our land.
“Pennsylvania’s tax base has gone through the floor,” Davare reminds me. “Fairless Hills in Bucks County used to be steel mills, now it’s rusted buildings. Duquesne City school district, two-thirds of their tax base was U.S. Steel property and they woke up one morning and U.S. Steel was closed.”
This is why the time has come. Find the lawmaker who represents you in the state House and state Senate. Tell that newfangled political-activist Facebook group to make school funding the priority, instead of just one of a million demands. Tell your congressman, the president, and his cabinet that they’ll be on life support, too, if things don’t change.
If you don’t, you’ll have only yourselves to blame.