Senate panel takes on limiting property tax increases and so-called “ghost teachers”

Senate panel takes on limiting property tax increases and so-called “ghost teachers”

Author: Jason Gottesman/Wednesday, March 29, 2017/Categories: News and Views

The Senate Education Committee Wednesday reported out a number of bills, including one bill that would place additional restrictions on the ability of school boards to approve property tax increases and another bill that would limit the ability of public school employees to accrue benefits while on full-time union leave.


The property tax proposal encompassed in Senate Bill 406 would limit the ability of school boards to approve an increase in the millage that serves as the base calculation point for property taxes by requiring such approval be given by a two-thirds vote of the school board.


Currently, only a majority vote is required to increase the millage rate.


Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery), the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 406, told committee members Tuesday that the issue is one he has been working on since first elected to office as a school board member in Montgomery County and the proposal—if enacted—will be a critical step in allowing more deliberation and debate over property tax increases in school boards that do not have the same checks and balances as the state legislature.


“They’re taxing the real estate, they’re taxing what has become the most important ownership right of an individual: our home,” he said. “Most people that buy those homes want to stay in those homes until they choose for their reasons to leave those homes and not to be driven out by any other reason.”


Committee Minority Chairman Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester) supported the legislation noting, in eastern parts of the commonwealth, school districts are growing and are particularly reliant on the property tax as opposed to state funding to provide resources for their districts.


“Please understand that in some areas, such as the Philadelphia suburbs—particularly Chester County and Montgomery County—we get very little from the state in terms of any funding,” he said to committee members.


“We are very dependent on the property tax and the areas that grow have these vast increases and this is a way to ensure there is complete discussion and the citizens’ point of view is understood and acknowledged.”


Despite warm reaction from the committee, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association challenged the General Assembly to pass legislation that would require the same from them on tax votes before putting this requirement on school boards.


"PSBA asks that the legislature lead through example by first passing legislation that requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly to increase statewide taxes, and to then extend that requirement to not just local school districts, but to all local governments with taxing authority in the commonwealth," wrote PSBA executive director Nathan Mains.


"It is our belief that this type of systematic change should apply to all taxing bodies in Pennsylvania, and that the legislature should lead the way since this change will require a constitutional amendment."


While that bill advanced from the committee unanimously, the union leave bill drew much more division from the panel, passing by a 5-4 vote.


According to a bill summary provided by the committee, the bill—Senate Bill 494 sponsored by Sen. Pat Stefano (R-Fayette)—would prohibit public school employees from collecting teacher benefits like seniority or service credit while on full-time union leave, unless excepted with a currently in-force collective bargaining agreement.


In a cosponsorship memo attached to the bill, Sen. Stefano noted that these teachers have been referred to as “ghost teachers” in the past.


“Under current law, a collective bargaining agreement between a union and a school district can require the district to allow work arrangements where school district employees work full-time for the union while remaining on the district's payroll,” he said. “This type of arrangement is often known as official time, release time or union leave. The teachers continue to receive their full salary and benefits - paid for by the district - and to accrue time towards their pension, even though they are not in a classroom.”


Similar legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate last session, but was never brought up for a committee vote in either chamber.


Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny), speaking on behalf of Democrats on the committee, said the legislation as proposed is “counterproductive” to a recent trend of the state trying to build better bonds with public schools.


“There’s networking that goes on, the passing on of information, laws, things that teachers need to know that’s not something that I think inhibits their ability to do their job,” he said.


“I think teachers need to know more about what’s going on with legislation with regard to testing, teacher evaluation, what we’re doing with protection of children and I think the more people we have in that process, whether it be a union representative or not, really benefits what we’re trying to do at a macro level.”


The vote on these bills Wednesday sets them up to be potentially voted on by the full Senate when they return to voting session April 18.