You’re going to want to wake up now

Dear taxpayers of Avalon and Bellevue,

You are really going to want to wake up and take a serious look at your school district.

First, let’s all agree that we love the idea of small neighborhood schools, we think our kids are the best kids in the world, and we will all bleed red and yellow until the day we die. Now, put down your pom poms and take a look at the hard reality:

You can’t afford to pay more for underperforming schools.

The Northgate School Board is currently proposing a financial plan that has the district going flat broke in about five or six years despite the fact that it will be increasing your property taxes every single year for at least the next five years. The first tax increase will produce about $350,000 in additional revenue and increase the taxes paid by the average household by $75 per year. Not bad, although $350,000 is such a teensy tiny drop in the $25 million budget bucket that it won’t even produce a visible ripple.

But in five years, the average household easily could be paying $400 or $500 more per year than what it currently pays. For our senior population and others on a fixed income, you might want to sell your houses now while you still can, or accept the idea that food and medicine are luxuries you no longer can afford.

Of course, all of this is based on figures generated by the Northgate School District that, historically, have been about as wrong as you can get without being considered pure fiction. For instance, in the current fiscal year, the district projected a deficit of about $350,000. They will close the year with a surplus of more than $600,000. That’s a miscalculation of nearly $1 million! Another year produced a surplus of $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, the district sits on a reserve fund of $11.5 million.

How is this possible? Didn’t the state swoop in to save taxpayers with laws that limit when and by how much school districts can increase taxes while sitting on a boat load of cash? Why, yes, it did. And school districts promptly found a way around those limits.

If you take a look at Northgate’s numbers, you will see what I mean. Under state law, a district the size of Northgate cannot increase property taxes if its unassigned fund balance is more than 8 percent of its general fund balance. The word “unassigned” is very important, because it basically allows districts to tuck away money for budget deficits and pension contributions and capital improvements, and eliminate that money from the 8 percent calculation.

With a preliminary budget of $25,150,188, Northgate is allowed to raise taxes only if its unassigned fund balance is no more than $2, 012, 015.04. Guess how much Northgate’s unassigned fund balance is for the coming fiscal year? It’s $2,009,706, less than $3,000 off the state limit, and completely reliant upon the budget deficit being $2.5 million. That is so amazingly convenient that it’s easy to see why so few members of the Northgate School Board are questioning the need for a tax increase. (Cough).

Now, let’s look at what we’re paying for. In 2017, Northgate was ranked 495th out of 517 Pennsylvania school districts based on academic performance, especially test scores. And that would be with the district’s property taxes being the eighth highest in Allegheny County. (Avonworth, by the way, was ranked 58th.) Northgate people like to do a lot of victim shaming to explain those test scores – as in, “We’re doing the best we can with so many economically disadvantaged (poor) students and special education students.”

For the last two years, academic performance at the Northgate middle-high school has been so bad that the school has ranked among the bottom 15 percent statewide, and the district has been required to send parents letters informing them that they can apply for scholarships to send their children to a better school.

Now, some might argue that this is a good reason to increase taxes, so that students can get a better education. Unfortunately, most of the increased revenue will be going to capital improvements and to maintain the status quo – basically just to keep the buildings standing and keep the current personnel receiving paychecks. And the district is projecting that it will be unable to do even that by 2024-25.

Another theory is that if Northgate can just keep raising taxes and fumbling along for a few more years, some magical genie will appear in Harrisburg or Washington and cause a widespread legislative epiphany that the state and federal governments need to pour more money into public schools.

And while we’re waiting for that happy day, how many residents of Avalon and Bellevue will figure out that they can pay less in taxes and get a better education for their children by moving just a couple miles down river?