About 50 people rallied outside Bethel Park School District’s administration building Aug. 27 in response to the school board’s recent surprise tax cut.
The group dubbed its protest the “Bad Faith, Bad Policy Rally.”
Six speakers, some of whom are school director candidates, lambasted the board’s June 25 decision to lower the property tax rate by 8.2%.
“No district that cares about the education of children would have done this,” said resident Shayna Willis. She said the tax cut was a political move designed to handcuff the new board that will take office in December.
The decision to cut taxes surprised many residents and some members of the school board, because the board did not discuss the idea during several months of budget meetings. The matter was only broached when the budget had to be adopted, about a week before the state deadline. At that meeting, the board voted 6-3 to reduce the property tax rate from 22.8763 mills to 21 mills.
Directors Ken Nagel, Barry Christianson and Pam Dobos dissented. Those three directors resisted efforts to cut some educational spending in the past.
Some of the board members voting for the tax cut will not be in office in December, because they were defeated in the May primary.
The tax cut will reduce revenue by about $4.7 million and the district will have to withdraw about $5.7 million from its reserve fund to cover the shortfall.
Opponents of the move argue such a drastic reduction in revenue will place the district in a financially precarious position, forcing the future board to raise taxes by the maximum state-allowed rate for several years just to recover.
“I’m scared the generation coming up behind me is not going to be afforded the same advantages because of the decisions made in that board room right now,” said Tom Duerr, one of the organizers of the rally. “They slashed and hindered Bethel Park’s future.”
Director Jim Means, who voted for the tax cut, said at the board meeting the district has a fund balance that is large enough to grant property owners some relief.
“It was all about reducing the cost of education for taxpayers,” he said.
Director Pam Dobos countered if that’s the case, the board’s majority should have made that argument during public meetings so school officials could investigate the issue to determine the ramifications of any tax cut.
“The way you did it was just wrong,” Dobos said.
Rally organizer Sharon Janosik presented a petition to the board with about 600 signatures from people asking for the resignations of the six board members who voted for the tax cut.
“They have to resign. They should be ashamed,” she said at the protest.
School board members argued over Nagel’s request for information regarding long-term building maintenance, staffing levels, resources and financial commitments.
Nagel said he needed the information to plan for any potential financial difficulty the tax cut might cause.
Other board members noted it would take considerable effort for administrators to gather that information, so the motion to place Nagel’s request on the agenda failed, 4-3.
Later, Nagel interrupted the meeting to state he was filing a Freedom of Information Act request for that information. Means attempted to censure Nagel for the interruption, but Means’ motion failed when no one seconded the motion.
The tax-cut issue has generated significant controversy in Bethel Park in the past several weeks. Comments have become particularly nasty on social media. Resident Diane Ford urged those discussing the matter to show more civility and respect for their neighbors.
“Kids are watching how we conduct ourselves,” she said.