Lower Merion Board approves preliminary budget with 3.85 percent tax hike

Lower Merion and Narberth residents are a step closer to seeing what the final 2017-2018 school district budget will look like and, so far, it comes with a proposed 3.85 percent tax increase.

Monday night, the Board of School Directors approved the 2017-18 preliminary budget but not before speakers on both sides of the issue fought to have their voices heard in the wake of an ongoing lawsuit over last year’s budget.

In a related development, the debate over the lawsuit and the district’s budget has also turned into a billboard campaign. The side supporting the district administration and opposing the lawsuit has put up a giant billboard at Lancaster Avenue near Anderson Avenue advertising their organization, saveLMSD.

Under the preliminary budget approved Monday, the district is projecting spending $267.7 million. That is up from $258.9 million that was projected to have been spent in the current 2016-2017 school year. The upcoming budget calls for a 3.85 percent tax hike to close an expected $8 million budget gap.

A property with an average value of $250,680 would have an increase of $264 per year, according to district figures.

Next year’s budget will continue to be discussed at upcoming meetings with the final budget expected to be approved at the board’s June meeting.

The preliminary budget approval also comes at a time when the debate is heating up over a lawsuit filed last year that has now gone before an appeals court. Last August Montgomery County Judge Joseph Smyth ordered Lower Merion School District to decrease the 2016-2017 tax hike from the board approved 4.4 percent increase to 2.4 percent.

The suit was appealed by the district and, in December, a court in Harrisburg heard both sides and a decision is upcoming. Meanwhile, both supporters of the lawsuit and opponents of it weighed in on the district’s budgeting practices.

Among the speakers was Jane Broderson who has been involved with the creation of a group called saveLMSD.com which is opposing the lawsuit and is responsible for the billboard in Ardmore. “We support strong public schools in our district and we support our school board,” Broderson said as she opened up the public comment part of the meeting. “We have a petition — the last time we checked there were 2,721 of us all standing together to support our strong public schools in the face of the $55 million lawsuit.”

Broderson also expressed her support for the idea that elections have consequences and in the most recent board elections the side she supported won the election and the other lost the election. “We elected you folks, we elected you fair and square, democratically,” Broderson said. “You won, some people lost. Our taxes are among the lowest in the region and our schools are among the greatest in the entire United States so we think you are doing right. We trust you and if the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are telling us we should trust them and they know what’s best for our community – to us that’s almost like Betsy DeVos saying ‘Trust me I’m going to do what’s best for the public schools in the US.’ We don’t think so.”

Daniel Marein-Efron, who is also with the saveLMSD group, said their petition shows that there are thousands of residents who are in support of the actions taken by the school board, the community and the teachers.

Marein-Efron also addressed the suggestion to save money by moving students from their home school to other schools where there could be more room instead of building on to existing schools. “I think at previous meetings there was a suggestion … about maybe we should move students around every semester or every year from one overcrowded school [to a less crowded school],” Marein-Efron said. “I think this would be very disruptive ... and I think it’s part of a campaign to try and reduce the quality of public schools. Let’s not fool ourselves — that’s what this is about. This lawsuit is simply about trying to starve the public schools of money to educate all the children of the community and I think this is something that we should all stand up [over]. This is not about some pennies here and some pennies there.”

Phil Browndeis, one of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the district has the money in its reserves to pay for the increase in spending. “I noticed this presentation didn’t include the $61 million in reserves highlighted in a slide,” Browndeis said. “With that in mind, this budget for 2017-18, you can spend that budget and give the taxpayers a break by using that reserve and not raising taxes this year. I think it would send a strong message that you hear what’s going on.”

Browndeis also mentioned older residents who worry about being able to stay in their homes due to rising taxes. “I know of the fervent supporters of the school board have even gone so far as to say, ‘well if they want to stay in their homes they should take out a reverse mortgage.’” Browndeis said. “I don’t believe any of you would suggest that’s how somebody should spend their older years – paying down their house for taxes and not being able to leave it to their children or grandchildren.”

Rosa Serota, who has attended board meetings regularly for decades, said people are forgetting that the lawsuit is about the money the district has in its reserves.

“I think you’ve muddied the waters,” Serota said. “This lawsuit is not about education, cutting courses – it is about a budget debt that is in excess of $55 million of reserves. You are asking us for a tax hike. That amazes me. It absolutely amazes me.”

Serota also expressed concern on the tone that supporters of the district have taken by referring to their opponents as “enemies of the school district.”

“... I take issue with that,” said Serota “I’ve attended school board meetings for over 30 years. I’ve served on committees. … I’ve shared my thoughts with you. I don’t call that an enemy of the school district. People can have different ideas and we don’t have to be characterized as an enemy of the school district. I suggest that you all look at this budget and do what is realistic.”