State ‘Error’ May Cost Pottsgrove Taxpayers

LOWER POTTSGROVE PA – After committing to a zero-tax-increase budget for 2020-2021, and after eating up hours poring over spending plans to shave small costs that saved bigger money overall, the Pottsgrove Board of School Directors may find its budget hopes foiled by an error made at the state Department of Education, school district Business Administrator David Nester said Tuesday (May 26, 2020).

A $300 million miscalculation by Pennsylvania in the amount of gambling revenues it has annually shared to districts statewide since 2006 could mean that, no matter what they do, directors may be forced to raise school-related real estate taxes by as much as $150 in the coming academic year, Nester explained as he delivered the bad news during the board’s virtual meeting on Zoom.

But, Nester cautioned, nothing’s etched in stone yet.

So far, he added, reports from Harrisburg on which he’s relied in the past indicate the state seems prepared to offer, but not increase, the same funding in Pottsgrove’s basic and special education subsidies it supplied last year. And, who knows?, he suggested, the error might be solved or the missing gaming money replaced by funding from elsewhere.

Still, the experienced and possibly jaded Nester commented, “I have a hard time believing” the Education Department made a mistake of that magnitude.

It’s the department’s job to annually certify the amount of casino and other gaming revenues to be shared with districts under what is known as the “Homestead Exemption.” It did that during April (2020), estimating $621 million was available for ’20-’21.

For the past 12 or so years, Nested reported, Pottsgrove’s portion of the money has consistently amounted to about $1.5 million. The coming budget, scheduled to be approved by board members June 9, includes an estimated tax reduction of $299 per household as a result, he said. But the error prompted the state this month to re-certify the available amount, cutting it in half. By his new estimate, Pottsgrove might get only $770,000 under the re-certification, or $150 per property.

That leaves a new and significant budget hole that, Nester predicted, can be covered by only three methods: more cash from the state, more cash from taxpayers, or a bigger budget deficit incurred by the district.

Board President Robert Lindgren was equally grim. “I don’t think that’s the end of the bad news,” he proclaimed. The bulk of schools’ state funding comes from two major metropolitan areas, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, he said. Until both are fully re-opened from coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, Pennsylvania’s “budget hole will continue to grow,” he said.

District Superintendent Dr. William Shirk acknowledged “things are changing every day” at the state level in the continuing coronavirus environment. The exasperating situation is “moving fast, with day-by-day and hour-by-hour updates,” he added. He refuses, however, to have Pottsgrove simply react to such constant ups-and-downs.

Instead, the district can better spend its time planning for the “what ifs and what’s next” scenarios, Shirk added, while recognizing the money needed to match the state model for post-pandemic education “doesn’t exist. We’ve got to do with what we have.”

To that end, while Nester wrestles with the numbers, Shirk said he plans to continue meeting with his leadership team and building-level administrators to determine what he considers most important, “putting forth seamless content that’s needed” by students, no matter whether it’s delivered in classrooms, online, or a mix of both two.

Photo of the state Capitol in Harrisburg, from WikiMedia, used under a Creative Commons license