Lower Merion schools fight in court to raise property taxes

LAURA BENSHOFF

In Pennsylvania, school boards have tremendous power to tax and spend, designated by state law. 

In August, Montgomery County judge Joseph Smyth challenged the existing order when he ruled Lower Merion School Board could not raise taxes as high as it planned. School officials have appealed, and oral arguments took place in Harrisburg Thursday. 

Attorney and Lower Merion resident Arthur Wolk, along with two other plaintiffs, filed the class action suit back in February, alleging the school district illegally raised taxes to sock away in rainy day funds and asking for $55 million in damages be returned to past and present residents.

"My upset is not over the great school, my upset is charging us more that. In other words, they took $60 million over what is necessary to fund their schools," Wolk said, following Thursday's oral arguments.

Lower Merion has some of the highest spending, per pupil, of any district in the state and Lower Merion High School is ranked fifth in the state, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Lower Merion officials argued the increases are completely legal and their fund balances will help cover future expenses without having to borrow money.

Tax increases above 2.4 percent, the limit under a law known casually as Act 1, require a voter referendum unless they are necessary to cover pension or special education costs. In that case, the state Board of Education directly approves the increases, as they did repeatedly for Lower Merion.

Lawyer for the district, Alicia Hikock, said Wolk has misinterpreted state law around Act 1 and fund balance limits, and that the suit is inflected by his politics.

"I think also he has a different philosophy, that you should spend less on education and you should spend everything down to zero," she said.

Wolk has been critical of Lower Merion's course offerings and amenities, calling the district "out of control with its opportunities...approaching private school levels."

If it upholds that decision, the Commonwealth Court's ruling could have broad implications for schools across the state, according to Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

"It's very concerning because it would be a sort of reinvention of the wheel from our perspective," he said.

The appeals court could issue a decision or decide to hear the case again, in front of a larger panel judges.

Jane Broderson

Jane is the founder of Save LMSD.