In high-tax Upper Darby, school bills going up again. The district has plenty of company.
Upper Darby School District approved its budget Thursday night, and with it a 2.5 percent property tax increase. It is not alone as a survey found that 75 percent of school districts throughout the state intend to do the same thing. Struggling Upper Darby might catch a small break, though, with the possibility of receiving an additional one-time $3.5 million gift from the state.
Property owners in the Upper Darby School District — where local tax rates already are among the highest in the region — will pay even more starting July 1.
With officials warning of a potentially dire financial situation and complaining of inadequate funding from Harrisburg, school board members in Upper Darby, one of the state's largest districts with almost 13,300 students, voted, 6-2, Thursday night to approve a 2.5 percent increase in the real estate levy, or $67 more for the owner of an average-assessed home, at $75,000.
More than 75 percent of the state's school districts intend to raise property taxes this year, according to a study conducted this month by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. (Last year' figure was 70 percent.) As with other districts, Upper Darby officials cite rising pension, charter school, salary, and special education costs.
"We cannot sustain recurring costs," said Superintendent Dan Nerelli last week, explaining that a tax increase would help the district, in Pennsylvania's most populous township, stay in operation.
The increased revenue might be accompanied by a one-time cash infusion of $3.5 million from Harrisburg, school officials said. But it's not for certain, as the bill was still working its way through the legislature this week.
That additional money might go toward repairing beaten-down buildings, said School Board President Rachel Mitchell.
"Our children deserve to learn in updated facilities with 21st century technology, with updated curriculum and working bathrooms," Mitchell said.
Nerelli, who is leaving in September to lead the Chichester School District, said in the interview last week that Upper Darby is on track to go "bankrupt" in two years if it doesn't receive significantly more state money.
By law, however, districts can't file for bankruptcy because they are a public entity. Instead, districts can declare fiscal distress, which allows the state to send in its own financial officer and temporarily usurp the district's financial powers, according to Jay Himes, executive director of the school business officers' group.
A state takeover usually results in bigger class sizes and fewer course offerings, Himes said.
Several districts are currently under state takeover, including the nearby Chester Upland School District.
Officials at Upper Darby said there hasn't been talk of declaring fiscal distress yet.
"The last thing we want is a state takeover," said Rep. Jamie Santora (R., Delaware), father of an rising sophomore at Upper Darby High School. As a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, he said, he's been trying to get more funding for Upper Darby for years.
In the meantime, school board officials say, it's critical to keep going to Harrisburg and fighting for more money.
"Upper Darby School District is entitled to fair and full funding," said Upper Darby resident Mike Zabel, who spoke at Thursday's meeting. The $3.5 million "isn't a gift," he said. "It's penance for the lousy job they're doing."