HARRISBURG (AP) — Fewer Pennsylvania school districts are seeking approval to raise property taxes beyond a state-imposed rate without asking voters first, according to a state report released Tuesday.
The report shows that 171 of 497 districts were granted exceptions from a requirement that local voters approve tax increases that exceed a state inflation index. It was the second straight year in which those requests have declined, officials said.
Of the remaining districts, 311 approved resolutions declaring they would not increase taxes above the index, and 15 others left open the possibility that in the May 21 primary, they will seek voter approval for larger increases.
Of the 11 districts that encompass parts of Indiana County, five received Pennsylvania Department of Education approval to raise tax rates above the limit without a voter referendum.
• The Armstrong School District requested authority to collect $908,153 of additional real estate tax to cover the district’s obligation to the state school employees’ pension fund, but was allowed an increase to generate $594,101.
• Homer-Center School District requested approval for $137,076 but was permitted an increase of $47,210.
• Indiana Area School District was granted its request to raise an additional $490,851 for its pension fund payment.
• The Penns Manor Area School District was allowed to raise the tax to bring in $92,378 for its pension fund obligation, as requested.
• The United School District asked permission to raise $117,321 of tax revenue for its pension contribution but was allowed an increase of $124,465. United also was authorized for an increase of $200,944 to cover excess special-education expenses, for a total of $325,409.
Department spokesman Tim Eller speculated that the numbers reflect school boards’ reluctance to raise taxes in a sluggish economy and their willingness to try more innovative ways to hold down expenses.
The 2013-14 inflation index, which takes into account increases in state wages and school expenses, is 1.7 percent. Poorer districts may qualify for a higher rate.
State law requires school boards to make important budget and tax decisions in January and February, midway through the school year and months before the state budget is passed. Many ultimately seek exceptions from the referendum requirement for larger tax increases than what they ultimately approve.
“They're looking at the worst-case scenario,” Eller said.
Last year, for example, the state approved exceptions for nearly $160 million in proposed tax increases above the index, but only about $48 million was levied, according to the report.
School boards “don't know what they're going to get from the state” until June or later, said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.