Unfair that rural students come up short

Arthur Stewart Warren County School District Board of Directors

In July, Governor Wolf said Pennsylvania should push all state school funding through a new formula. Currently, Warren County receives about 58% of its school revenue from the state (35% from local taxes and 7% from the federal government); if all school funding came through the new formula the state education money paid to Warren County would drastically drop. In fact, education money to 3/5 of the State’s school districts would drop. The “winners” under Governor Wolf’s system would primarily be urban and suburban school districts.

In light of Governor Wolf’s comments, a Warren Times Observer reporter wrote an opinion piece about state education funding. At the end of the opinion, and in the light of the reporter’s own children soon entering the Warren County school system, the reporter found himself opposed to the Governor’s change. But in spite of that opposition, the reporter concluded Warren County receives “an unfair percentage (meaning too much) of our funding from the state compared to many other school districts.”

I disagree… strongly. State law dictates that we derive our local tax revenue from two primary sources. First is earned income tax. State law caps EIT at 1% of income–we’ve been maxed at that 1% rate for decades. Second is property tax–this is our “big” source of local revenue.

What did the reporter miss about property taxes in Warren County? A huge part of our tax base is locked away in state game lands and in the Allegheny National Forest. We cannot get normal tax revenue from those government-owned properties. We are supposed to receive a small percentage of the proceeds from timber harvesting on the ANF, but the environmental extremists have reduced ANF harvesting to a pittance. For example, there are tens of million dollars of ash trees on the ANF that are dying from the emerald ash borer; but instead of harvesting the trees, the ANF is leaving most to fall and rot.

And what did the reporter miss about rural counties in general? Farm fields and forests don’t generate much property tax. Even houses don’t translate to a lot of property tax value. The big property tax values are found in commercial and industrial properties. In Warren County, we have a couple box stores and a handful of industrial sites. But as a school board member I have visited districts around Pittsburgh that enjoy tax revenue from hundreds of box stores, a couple thousand office buildings, etc. Those school districts only receive 10 to 15% of their revenue from the state. But due to their wealthy local tax base, those schools enjoy lower student-teacher ratios, planetariums, engineering classrooms, complex TV studios, athletic complexes that make our YMCA look small and more–benefits that rural counties will never afford.

It is unfair that rural students come up short. Does a student have a lesser education need because he or she grew up in Warren County rather than Allegheny County? If you go to a state college you get the same level of assistance whether you are from Warren or Allegheny County. Think about human services. If you qualify for welfare help in Pennsylvania, the need is filled with state tax dollars. If you are poor in Allegheny County you receive the same welfare benefits as someone who is poor in Warren County. (By the way, at $12.7 billion, human services is the largest part of the state’s budget, eclipsing even education.)

My biggest disagreement with the reporter is based on our actual tax rates. Truth is, Warren County taxpayers already pay more than taxpayers in most other counties. Go to this website:

https://www.gardenstateloans.com/information/pa-property-tax-rates/. It gives the local property tax rates for each county in Pennsylvania, stated as a percentage of home value. The average rate is 1.42%. In Warren County our rate is 1.57%; that means, that based on home values, we already contribute 10% more than the average Pennsylvania taxpayer. That’s why, as school board members, when we say we don’t want to raise local taxes any higher, we really mean it. In Warren County, we already pay our fair share.

I can’t end without mentioning the pension. In 2003 our state radically increased pension benefits for state employees. Today, with social security and state pension benefits combined, retiring state employees will enjoy income nearly equal to what they made while working. Those payouts are breaking the bank. Even though the state has mandated radical increases to our employer contributions to the pension fund, the fund is still $70 billion underfunded.

In Warren County, our district’s pension payments have increased from $1.4 million ten years ago to about $9 million today! So, over those ten years, even though our overall school budget has gone up, our actual spending on education (other than pension) has stayed the same. Why shouldn’t we look to the state to pay for that mess? Locally we have no control over the pension debacle. For these reasons, I’m confident that we Warren County taxpayers already pay our fair share for education.