Lower Merion Township residents clashed at the first school board meeting since a Montgomery County judge ruled the district had unnecessarily raised taxes by claiming it was short on funds, when it actually had tens of millions of dollars in reserve.
Of approximately 200 people who showed up Monday night, many of the two dozen who addressed the board criticized it for overtaxing the community and not being transparent about its budget process. Others praised the members for doing whatever it took - including per-pupil spending among the highest in the state - to provide a top-notch education for Lower Merion children.
On Aug. 29, Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph A. Smyth ordered the Main Line district to revoke the 4.4 percent increase it had imposed for the current school year, saying it had long been exaggerating multimillion-dollar deficits to justify tax hikes. He found the district had increased taxes more than 53.3 percent since 2006 to make up for alleged budget gaps, yet it consistently had year-end surpluses.
The judge said the district could impose a 2.4 increase, the maximum the state allows without an exception to the Act 1 index, which Lower Merion had received. He stated, however, that he thought even 2.4 percent was too high.
Before the public was allowed to speak, Superintendent Robert Copeland stated the district needed to raise taxes because of staggering enrollment growth - a 20 percent increase in the last decade to more than 8,300 students - as well as special education and staff pension costs.
Most of the speakers - including Arthur Wolk, the Gladwyne lawyer who brought the lawsuit against the district - thought otherwise. They criticized the board for saying that the litigation threatened the excellence of the schools and that programs could be in jeopardy if the district loses its appeal, which it filed two days after Smyth's ruling.
"You should be ashamed that lifelong residents are being forced to sell their houses because their real estate taxes have increased 53 percent over just 10 years," said Steve Gleason, of Rosemont.
"I'm retired," Katherine Wynne, of Bryn Mawr, told the board. "I see school taxes climb every year. I see friends moving out of Lower Merion because they can't afford to stay."
Siovhan Pendergast, of Gladwyne, criticized the board for holding morning meetings when people are at work and for not being accountable. She said she once asked what a $3 million budget item was for and didn't get an answer.
"If that was corporate America," she said, "you'd be fired."
Pendergast noted that in the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of school districts, Lower Merion came in at 480. "At $31,000 a year per student," she said, "we should rank higher."
While the figure she cited accounts for overall spending, the Pennsylvania Department of Education excludes some costs when calculating the per-pupil rate, arriving at $24,393 for 2014-15 (the latest data available). That was the second-highest per-pupil expenditure in Pennsylvania that year.
Several people suggested that instead of asking the state if it could raise taxes above the legal limit, the board should have held a public referendum.
Bill Manginelli, of Narberth, said most residents want to support the schools. If the board had asked them for more money, he said, he believed taxpayers would have agreed.
Wolk got the loudest applause when he said he supported the district by paying taxes for 30 years, even though his children did not attend Lower Merion schools. But "what I don't support is your falsifying information . . . and illegal tax increases for the last 10 years," he said. If the district made a mistake in claiming $81 million in deficits in the last six years, "give us back our money."
Wolk also said the district misrepresented special ed and pension costs to the state, and the amount of its debt service.
"You've lied to us," he said. ". . . Shame on you."
Others spoke up in support of the district and the board members.
"Thank you so much . . . for the greatest gift you can give to our children, an excellent education," said Jane Broderson, a mother of five who handed out a lengthy printout with anonymous quotes from other supporters.
Another woman who did not give her name but said she had school-age children said, "While sometimes I had to wonder where I was going to get that tax money from, I never had to wonder what you guys were doing with it."
Edward Sobel, of Bala Cynwyd, who cocreated a documentary on education funding in Pennsylvania, said he "applauded the district's foresight" in creating healthy reserves.
"Our property values are what they are because of the strength of the schools," he said to applause.
Critics pointed out that nearby Tredyffrin/Easttown, which consistently outranks Lower Merion in state and national surveys, spent just $16,683 per pupil in 2014-15.
Copeland said one reason for that is that other districts have less debt service than Lower Merion, which recently built two high schools and updated and expanded other schools as enrollment soared.
When the speakers were done, the school board voted to hire lawyer D. Alicia Hickok of Drinker Biddle to handle the appeal at $495 per hour.