Like other schools, Hollidaysburg money woes go back years

The big reason for the Hollidaysburg Area School District’s growing financial worries is not district property owners’ opposition to paying higher taxes.

They’ve endured millage increases, albeit not since the 2008-09 school year.

Hollidaysburg’s money problems are rooted instead in the failure of current and past school board members and administrators to be blunt in identifying the reasons for the district’s dilemma, and then use that as a springboard for working to rectify what’s wrong.

The Oct. 20 Mirror articles delving into the exodus of administrators over the past year and the differing opinions over whether the district should opt for property tax increases provided abundant examples of the reluctance of those interviewed to be specific regarding blame.

The district can’t hope to gain the upper hand over the money problem until the people in charge do that.

The Hollidaysburg Area School District, as well as districts across the state, are in deep financial trouble for a number of reasons dating back to well before the 2001 legislative debacle in which lawmakers gave themselves a 50 percent pension increase and followed that with a 25 percent pension increase for teachers.

“Credit” for the unconscionable pension action, which has become a financial albatross for Keystone State school systems, rests with former Gov. Tom Ridge and former powerful state lawmakers such as Blair County’s Robert C. Jubelirer, all of whom should have had the foresight to anticipate the fiscal train wreck that would ensue if the economy soured.

And it has.

Look back to 1970, when the state’s public employees bargaining law was passed. It was a time when teachers were underpaid.

The law rectified that situation, but it “accomplished” more than what most people envisioned.

It cemented teachers’ expectations for wage increases greatly exceeding inflation, and at the same time teachers rejected paying anything, or more than a little, for their health care coverage.

Many school boards have not been upfront with taxpayers – Hollidaysburg among them – regarding the actual money involved.

Anytime a contract is approved, school boards should do more than report the percentage or dollar amount of wage increases granted. They should report what the raises cost the district in total, factoring in health care costs as well.

School boards, however, seldom disclose the total yearly cost of the taxpayers providing basically free health care to employees – while many of the taxpayers are paying much more for their own coverage.

At the same time, Hollidaysburg is being penalized by Harrisburg’s misperception that it is rich.

Likewise, in order to attract new businesses, Hollidaysburg must join others in offering potential new enterprises huge property tax breaks that deprive the schools of revenue.

If the Hollidaysburg board merits criticism, it’s not for not raising taxes. It’s for not fighting hard enough against the root causes of the money problems.