Suit: Main Line school district way too taxing

The main entrance at Lower Merion High School.

A suit filed by a Main Line attorney argues that the Lower Merion School District, one of the region's wealthiest and most highly regarded, has misled the public about its finances and should remit its $55 million surplus to taxpayers.

The class-action suit, filed Monday in Montgomery County Court by Arthur Wolk, a lawyer who lives in Gladwyne, seeks a long list of remedies, including a five-year moratorium on tax increases.

It says that the district has misappropriated funds and that its large surplus was "ill-begotten."

"That's all money that never should have been collected," Wolk said in an interview.

In a statement Thursday, the district called the suit "baseless" and "offensive."

Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young said the district carries a nearly $56 million fund balance, with more than $45 million of that committed to paying for pensions, retirement benefits, and capital projects.

Lower Merion is one of the state's highest-performing districts, with copious staff, state-of-the-art facilities, and an array of programs that rival those of some private schools.

But all those perks are costly, Wolk argues, resulting in sky-high taxes. Taxes have increased almost 40 percent since the 2007-08 school year - from 18.878 mills to 26.232, adding about $1,700 to the tax bill for a median-valued home, according to state figures.

"They've been overestimating expenses and underestimating revenues seven years in a row," he said.

In addition to the refund, Wolk said, he is asking the court to force the district and school board to "change the way they do business."

The suit calls for a referendum on all tax increases and construction projects costing over $1 million, a tax moratorium of at least five years, meetings that allow for serious dialogue with taxpayers, and control over teacher salaries.

When residents have attempted to discuss issues with the board, Wolk said, they have been ignored.

Lower Merion's "secret" decision-making and procedures for public comment that don't allow for dialogue "are rotten and corrupt," the suit said.

Wolk also criticized the district for giving laptops to students who could afford their own, and for building two new high schools at a cost of $238 million.

"This is really arrogant beyond any comprehension," he said.

The Lower Merion statement said that the district welcomes public input and that its goal is to "reduce costs and preserve programs at a time of unprecedented enrollment growth ... and unfunded state mandates."

It also said Wolk's lawsuit will drain critical resources from the district and taxpayers.