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Trust the citizens who'll have to pay schools' bills

August 20, 2004

On a 7-2 vote, the Waynesboro, (Pa.), Area School Board this week approved a measure that will allow it to borrow up to $40 million to repair school buildings.

By acting before Sept. 3, the board avoided a referendum that would have been required under a new state law, had the board acted after that date.

They may have met the letter of the law, but not its intent. Their action assumes that citizens are not intelligent enough to vote in favor of measures necessary to educate local schoolchildren.

Under the new law, schools are due for new revenues as the state legalizes slot machines and changes the funding stream to rely more on income taxes and less on property taxes.

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The concern behind the income/property-tax swap was that many older Pennsylvanians with reduced retirement incomes could not cope with increasing school taxes. Instead, the burden would be shifted more toward younger citizens in their peak earning years.

But lawmakers wanted the law to have a "circuit breaker" of sorts. In exchange for new revenues, the schools would be required to take any funding proposal that exceeded an inflation figure set by the state to referendum.

Going to the voters is expensive, not only in terms of actual election costs, but also because of the time it requires to answer the public's questions, hold informational meetings and the like.

Elections are a messy business, no doubt, as citizens know in West Virginia, where some jurisdictions can't expand the town police force without going to the voters for approval.

But what we're talking about here is not an expenditure of several thousand dollars, but $40 million. While board member Leland Lemley's method of argument may seem a little bit hysterical, he has an important question: If the board borrows all this cash for bricks and mortar, will there be any cash left for classroom programs?

We trust the citizens. And, even though the board has already met the deadline, it should make sure that, from this point on, the people who will ultimately repay this cash are fully informed about where it will be spent, and for what.

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