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Senior volunteers get tax breaks and enjoyment

Lorraine Ferraro is pretty good with numbers after retiring from a long career as an accounting manager in Philadelphia's western suburbs.

Lorraine Ferraro is pretty good with numbers after retiring from a long career as an accounting manager in Philadelphia's western suburbs.

But in a kindergarten classroom at Pottstown's Lincoln Elementary School, the number Ferraro works on is 3 - as she leans over to guide a schoolboy practicing writing the digit on a sheet of paper.

"Good . . . good. . . . Those are sloppy," she tells the kindergartner.

Sharply attired in her businesslike red blazer with a gold pin on the lapel, the 70-year-old retiree started volunteering as a classroom aide in her school district after her husband died several years ago. "I knew I just couldn't sit home," she said.

But as one of nearly 90 participants in a program for senior volunteers that the Montgomery County district calls "Golden Sage," Ferraro gets something else from the program: A $500 discount on her yearly property taxes.

In a time of bombastic political debate from the corridors of Harrisburg to local school boards about what to do about Pennsylvania's property taxes, Ferraro is part of a little-publicized network of hundreds of seniors already getting tax relief the old-fashioned way: They earn it.

Pottstown is one of an estimated 20 or so school districts statewide - including Great Valley, Owen J. Roberts, and Downingtown, among others in the western suburbs - that provide as much as $650 in property-tax relief for their older residents who volunteer time, not only as classroom aides but driving vans and in a host of other functions.

Pottstown's community relations officer, John Armato, does not just publicize the Golden Sage program. He's a member. Armato retired from his district job handling public affairs several years ago, and while he bills the rebate program for three hours a day, he says he works closer to full time.

"In terms of cost-effectiveness, we're getting way, way more than our money's worth," Armato said, noting that even the program's administration - recruiting seniors, assigning them jobs, and handling all the paperwork - is handled by a Golden Sage volunteer, Rick Huss.

Action in Harrisburg

In Pottstown, volunteers are credited $5 an hour - capped at 100 hours, or $500 - which is fairly similar to programs in other local districts.

Now, State Rep. Tim Hennessey, a Chester County Republican, is pushing a bill that would spell out the specific authority of school districts to create this type of program for their seniors. He's hoping his legislation - House Bill 791 - will get a hearing and move out of committee early next year.

"What it would do is clarify the status of the law," Hennessey said. "There are some school district solicitors who are unsure if this is specifically authorized."

Hennessey and school officials say they would like to see volunteer tax-rebate programs expand to more districts.

They say the number in Pennsylvania was once closer to 35 but has shrunk in recent years, partly from confusion over whether such tax breaks are legal and partly because of budget constraints, even though most believe the value of the volunteer labor is much greater than the cost of their rebate checks.

Kennett Consolidated dropped its program a few years ago, but not because of legal concerns.

"We just did not have enough participants," said business manager Mark Tracy, whose district offered $500 for 50 hours of work for up to 20 seniors.

Hennessey's bill comes as the uproar over school property taxes in the commonwealth has never been greater.

Earlier this month, Gov. Wolf and legislative leaders said they had a tentative budget deal that proposed to use a sales-tax increase to reduce property taxes and increased aid to schools. The framework all but collapsed last week, and negotiators were said to be working this weekend on a new budget plan.

In New Jersey, legislation was introduced in January to allow seniors to volunteer in their hometowns in return for property-tax vouchers worth up to $1,000. The legislation was sent to the House in June.

In the Downingtown Area School District, Kathleen Painter, 70, a widowed retiree and great-grandmother, has been getting $630 in property-tax relief for the last six years as one of that district's 40 senior volunteers.

Painter, who helps with small groups and one-on-one instruction with first and second graders at Beaver Creek Elementary School, said she came for the tax deal but stayed because she loves working with the children.

"I like it so much that I don't care about the money anymore," she said.

She started her volunteer work with high schoolers and cooking projects in family and consumer services class - they called it "home ec" when she was in school - but is now enjoying the challenge of working with grade schoolers.

"At this point, they realize they're having a hard time learning," Painter said. "I've been helping them read, and giving a lot of praise, which I think is helping them."

Like many senior volunteers, she ends up working a lot more hours than the 70 required for a tax discount. It was close to 200 last year, she said.

"Some teachers are a little bit reluctant. They think of seniors with canes and ear trumpets," said Leslie Stauffer, whose nonprofit places the 65-and-over volunteers with Downingtown. But those who have had them as classroom assistants now admit "they don't know how they got along without them," she said.

Robert Wilkey began volunteering in Great Valley schools after retiring as a teacher in the district 10 years ago - and doesn't even use the tax rebate for himself. Instead, he applies it as a $650 credit toward the tax bill of other needy seniors who live in the Chester County district.

"I do it because it gets me up and going," said Wilkey, 66, who volunteers at Sugartown Elementary School and does everything from judging science fairs to stuffing envelopes. "I enjoy the camaraderie of seeing the teachers again. I definitely enjoy the enthusiasm of other students."

A lot of love

In Pottstown, kindergarten teacher Robin Anderson has worked with Ferraro for four years and was able to hire her as a full-time assistant last year because her class was so large. This year, Anderson is sharing a staff aide with other kindergarten classrooms and gets her for only about 40 minutes a day.

So the three-hour daily visits from Ferraro are invaluable. "The kids love her," Anderson said. "I love her. I couldn't do what I do without her."

On a recent morning, Ferraro sat with 5-year-old Laina DeCarlo, helping her identify her letters depicted on pumpkins with a "good job" as the kindergartner gets them right. A few minutes later, she displayed the same good-natured patience as another student identified triangles and other shapes.

The program, she said, "gives me a sense of purpose" after the death of her husband. "The children are a benefit to me, and I'm a benefit to them."