As part of Pennsylvania's ongoing work to crush public education promote fiscal responsibility, for the last decade we've had the bi-partisan fiscal straightjacket that is Act 1, which declares that schools may not raise taxes above a certain index without either a voter referendum or state-level permission. Lower Merion has allegedly been going the state exception route for the last ten budgets by claiming a projected deficit that would affect pensions and special ed. Here's how the district put it in response to the decision:
In Lower Merion, recent enrollment growth has exceeded projections and the impact on staffing and facilities planning has been significant and unexpected. Additionally, the District faces increasing unfunded and underfunded state-mandated costs, including retirement and special education. Without the ability to plan ahead for its financial needs and maintain adequate reserves, the District will lose critical flexibility during a time of uncertainty and growth. The implication for school programs is enormous.
It would seem that Lower Merion may have the worst budget process ever. The lawsuit and the ruling both leaned on what appear to be some serious mistakes in the predicted outcome of the year:
For instance, in 2009-10, the district projected a $4.7 million budget hole but ended the year with a $9.5 million overage. In 2011-12, it anticipated a $5.1 million gap but wound up with $15.5 million to the plus side.
Lower Merion business manager Victor Orlando testified that the district has between $50 and $60 million in the bank. This is in itself requires some of the aggressive accounting that the lawsuit complains about-- Pennsylvania also has laws about how much money a district can park in its general fund. But districts can get around those by parking money in designated funds ("This $20K is in our Library Doily Fund, not the general fund").
Wolk's two children did not attend school in the district, but he has a big house there and pays more taxes than he thinks he ought to. When the district's superintendent released a letter accusing Wolk of trying to establish public schools as lesser than private schools by choking off taxpayer support, Wolk replied with a letter of his own (referring to himself in third person).
There was no need for a tax increase this year or any year in the last ten according to audited statements. We have the highest paid teachers, highest paid administrators, and too many of them, and the most expensive school buildings and the highest per student cost of any place in the nation. Our school performance is on par with districts that spend half of what LMSD spends which means that the administrators have failed in their jobs and the people supposed to provide oversight, the Directors, have done nothing.
He also brings up senior citizens on fixed incomes who are afraid of losing their homes, because no discussion of school taxes in Pennsylvania can occur without bringing up the spectre of senior citizens afraid of losing their homes. I am not sure exactly who in Wolk's uber-rich neighborhood could be worried about losing their home over taxes.
Wolk has been explaining himself on the subject for months. In May he wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the district's wild spending way, creating debt by building "two Taj Mahal high schools" along with bunches of busing.
Wolk's critics (and he has plenty) repeatedly accuse him of advocating a two tier system, with just the basics for public school students. Here's an oft-quoted excerpt from his lawsuit.
Public school education means basic adherence to the minimum requirements established and imposed upon school district by the State Board of Education, Public education is not courses, programs, activities, fee laptop computers and curriculums that are neither mandated nor normally part of a public education standard, and are normally provided only by private institutions at larger expense to individual patrons who prefer to afford their children education and opportunities that are neither required, nor offered, nor appropriate for public education paid for by the taxpayers.