Lawsuit seeks removal of Lower Merion school board

A lawyer who successfully sued the Lower Merion School District for exaggerating multimillion-dollar budget deficits to justify large tax increases now wants the court system to remove the entire school board and force the return of $300,000 it paid to lawyers.

Arthur Wolk of Gladwyne filed the lawsuit Friday in Montgomery County Court on behalf of 18 residents calling for the removal of the nine board members and the appointment of substitutes, which is permitted under the Pennsylvania School Code. Wolk maintains the board has not followed the orders of Judge Joseph Smyth, who in August 2016 ruled that the district withdraw a 4.4 percent tax increase for the 2016-17 school year.

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Lawyer Arthur Wolk

The district fought that ruling, but its appeal was dismissed; the district is now seeking a hearing before the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, the 4.4 percent tax increase remains in effect.

“It was clear to us that the school board was not changing its practices in spite of the other lawsuit,” Wolk said in an interview. “They continue to violate the law, and they continue to be arrogant about it.”

In a brief statement, the school district said its lawyers had not yet had a chance to discuss the most recent suit with the school board.

“The petition contains no new allegations that have not been already made in Mr. Wolk’s prior court filings and other public statements from the last year,” the statement said. “The facts alleged do not in any way support the removal of a democratically elected school board.”

The 8,600-student Lower Merion School District has come under intense scrutiny for its budgeting practices, which have seen taxes raised nearly 60 percent in the last 13 years. It is among the richest public school systems in the state and its teachers are the highest paid, according to the Department of Education.

On the original lawsuit, Smyth said the district could increase its taxes by 2.4 percent for 2016-17, the maximum amount allowed under state law, but he noted that even that amount was likely more than was required to balance the budget for 2016-17.

When asking state officials to approve the tax hikes, the school district said it needed money for special education and employee pension costs, but Smyth found that the district had a surplus of money each year for special education, as well as $15.3 million in a retirement fund that apparently wasn’t used to pay pensions. The district also had $50 million to $60 million stored in reserve since 2006, according to testimony from its business manager.

In addition to mismanaging taxes, Wolk’s new suit alleges the school board misrepresented the amount it paid a law firm, Wisler Pearlstine, to defend the district against Wolk’s original lawsuit. The suit also asks that the school board return $300,000 paid to the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath to represent board members, who were not named in the original suit.

“They charge $300,000 … to the [school board] to represent them and they aren’t even sued and the [board] authorized the district to pay the bill,” Wolk said. “These guys are out of control.”

Under the Pennsylvania School Code, the County Court can remove school board members if they fail to organize — electing a president and vice president in December and a treasurer and secretary in May — or fail to perform their statutory duties.

“It’s just those two reasons that an entire board can be removed, failing to organize or performing their duties,” said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “It would be very rare that an entire board failed to do their duties.”

Robinson said staff attorneys could recall only one case in recent history of a board being replaced. In 2009, eight members of the North Schuylkill School Board were removed for failing to hire a new superintendent after its school chief resigned in 2007.

He also said the association’s chief counsel said it wasn’t unusual for school board members to retain their own lawyers even if they were not named in a lawsuit.