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Here’s how a Montco school district created a tax relief program that others want to copy

The program offers rebate checks to senior homeowners and renters.

Students leave North Penn High School.
Students leave North Penn High School.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania school board members are accustomed to hearing complaints about rising property taxes, especially from senior residents. But it’s rare that a district acts on those concerns and offers a relief measure.

The North Penn School District in Montgomery County last year became one of just a few districts in the state that offers relief to senior taxpayers. Based on a statewide program that is funded by the lottery and offers rebates of up to $650 for seniors, the district created its own rebate offer.

Similar programs could soon pop up in other Philly-area districts; since North Penn won an award for its rebate this year, several school leaders around the state have contacted the district in hope of reproducing it.

Some state lawmakers and taxpayer groups have pushed for reform or elimination of school property taxes, which account for the majority of homeowners’ tax bills. While that movement has not been successful in Harrisburg, initiatives such as rebate programs can offer some relief at the local level, said Steve Skrocki, North Penn’s chief financial officer.

“It really goes back to those that are most needy in the school district,” he said.

» READ MORE: How much are your school taxes increasing? Here’s a district-by-district look at the Philly region.

Seniors living in the North Penn district can receive rebate checks this fiscal year for 30% of the amount they would get from the state.

Last fiscal year, the rebate offered 25% of the state amount, which taxpayers can collect in addition to the state-funded rebate. The district gave nearly $36,000 to 453 applicants, an average of $82, said Skrocki.

The district also expanded the program this year to include seniors who rent their homes, Skrocki said, and is expecting greater participation. Skrocki said $120,000 has been set aside in the district’s $272 million budget to pay rebates.

Taxes increased in North Penn by 2.3% this year, which results in a tax bill hike of $87 for the typical homeowner.

“Our expenses are growing like everyone else’s,” said school board President Tina Stoll. “So our goal is to make the amount that a tax might go up for senior citizens hopefully be offset by the amount that they might get from a rebate.”

Skrocki, who worked for the Penn Manor School District in Lancaster County before he started his job with North Penn, helped create a similar rebate program there. When North Penn’s school board asked if it could do something to offer tax relief, he said, he presented the rebate program concept.

One key to offering the rebate, Skrocki said, is using the same application as the statewide senior tax rebate program.

“We didn’t want to create an administrative burden,” he said.

The Neshaminy School District in Bucks County has run its own rebate program since 1977. Its qualifications are different from the state program’s; household income must be less than $25,000. The district paid $108,000 to 239 seniors in the last fiscal year and the average rebate was about $454, said Donald Irwin Jr., the district’s business operations administrator.

The statewide senior property tax program offers rebates to homeowners whose household income is up to $35,000. Rebates depend on applicants’ income and range from $250 to $650. Renters can also receive rebates if their income is less than $15,000. About two-thirds of eligible homeowners participate in the program, according to the state’s Independent Fiscal Office.

In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the state reported that it paid a total of $255 million in rebates to more than 530,000 applicants.

North Penn received an award from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials for its rebate program this year.

Since then, several school officials have reached out to North Penn in hope of creating the same program in their own districts.

Stoll, the North Penn board president, said the district is also working to make sure seniors know they can apply for the program. Board members have visited senior centers, hosted pizza parties, and have even delivered rebate checks in person.

“People don’t really, these days, like you knocking on their door,” Stoll said — until they learn it’s the delivery for a rebate check.

Stoll said she asks residents for their help telling friends and neighbors to apply for the program.

“We want to make sure that we get the word out and we figure we might make an impression personally,” she said. “People love you for that.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the total amount that North Penn School District paid in rebates last fiscal year.