TASD teachers discuss property tax reduction legislation

The following is the first of a two-part interview with Dan Albright and Steve Everhart, two teachers in the Tyrone Area School District, regarding Act 72, the property tax reduction legislation that Pennsylvania school boards must opt into by May 30 in order to receive gaming revenue generated by Pennsylvania casinos.
Gaming revenues will off-set modest property tax reductions in districts that opt in, but districts must first raise local income taxes as one provision of the act. Another key provision of Act 72 limits school districts’ authority to generate needed revenues by making future tax increases a matter of voter referendum. Thus far, only four of Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts have opted in to the legislation. Here, local teachers try to explain why so many school districts and teachers are reluctant to opt in.
On Monday at 7 p.m. in the LGI Room of the elementary school, the Tyrone Area School Board will hold a public meeting to air residents’ concerns over the legislation.
What do Tyrone taxpayers most need to know about Act 72?
Albright: That Act 72 is not a done deal. Pennsylvania school board must vote to opt into the act by May 30, and all concerned Tyrone residents can be heard at a public meeting on the issue to be held on Monday. What they also may want to know is that the property tax reduction they’ve been promised will be made possible by a potentially unconstitutional funding source—gaming. If Rendell has his way, unreliable revenues from slot machines at Pennsylvania casinos that have yet to be built will be a major funding source for their child’s school. We don’t think that it’s asking too much that the state decide on a clearly constitutional means for funding public education instead of expecting our school board to accept gambling money that may never even arrive.
What’s to gain or lose for the average Tyrone taxpayer under Act 72?
Everhart: Assuming that the gambling money ever materializes (it may not), assuming that the returns will be significant (for most of us, we’re talking about a net trade-off of about $150, a few months cable, right?), and assuming that we will all have a significantly lower net tax bill in the end (we won’t, because the law demands that schools first increase our income taxes before we accept the gambling money), we think Tyrone property owners need to ask a more basic question: what message do we send our kids when we finance our schools with gambling money, especially when our kids are punished for gambling on school grounds? That it’s okay to bend the rules? That the dollar is the only bottom line that matters? Our local farmers and fixed-income property owners will be the big-gainers, but the school district neither gains nor loses revenue. It will lose a bit of its authority to raise local revenue in the future, however. The greater unspoken loss is one of values. The hypocrisy of Act 72 rankles a lot of folks in education.
How widespread among Tyrone’s teaching staff are moral concerns about accepting gambling money to fund our schools?
Albright: I want to be clear that I don’t speak for all teachers, but I can assure you that the moral concern is greater among teachers than it is among our elected politicians in Harrisburg. A few of us oppose gambling based on religious doctrine, but many who oppose it do so based on the number of lives it ruins and on the grounds that we’ll all pay sooner or later when we make a self-destructive behavior socially attractive. When used as a source of school funding, gambling is legitimized to another degree. The truth is that gambling has never been as socially acceptable in America. It’s so acceptable that those who speak out against it seem ridiculous. The fastest growing sport on ESPN is no longer played on a field and requires no protective padding—it’s poker. And the fastest growing audience is our kids. You can watch 7th graders playing 5-card stud and blackjack in the high school locker room while they’re waiting for the bell—although no money is changing hands. They know all the terminology and the strategies. It’s bizarre. As recent features on 60 Minutes and Dateline attest, televised and internet gambling is attracting teens by the millions.
There are those who will argue that gambling is just harmless fun?
Everhart: It’s true that for many gambling is fun, harmless entertainment. The ethical problem for many teachers is funding public education with it. The larger problem for society is that for the eight-million Americans who become problem gamblers, it’s an illness not unlike alcoholism. Remember that gambling wouldn’t be profitable if most participants weren’t losers. Problem gamblers lie to family and friends. Their home lives worsen as they are unable to pay off debts. They chase their losses by engaging in illegal acts to finance their addiction. They often experience hopelessness, suicidal attempts, arrests, divorce, drug abuse, breakdowns. Some steal money from family members. And remember who bails them out of bankruptcy when the party’s over—that would be us! 60 Minutes summed it up well in its recent broadcast on poker and gambling, “The essence of poker is lying.” On this foundation we will fund our schools. I shouldn’t sound so old-fashioned. In Nevada they fund schools with money from legalized prostitution.
How has Rendell countered concerns expressed by critics of Act 72?
Everhart: This spring he called the reluctance of Pennsylvania school boards to accept gambling money “nuts.” This is all part of what many school boards and newspapers are calling a desperate bullying ploy whenever Rendell realized that only four school districts in the state were willing to accept a revenue source with enough strings attached to trip a rogue elephant. Rendell started a few weeks ago by staging video-conference threats to school boards, wielding stiff repercussions for districts not opting into gambling money. He climaxed his sell recently with a promise to court Donald Trump to run Pennsylvania’s 14 new casinos. I believe this is the same Donald Trump who’s filed not once but twice for the bankruptcy of his own casinos.
(Editor’s note: The second part of the interview will appear in Monday’s edition of The Daily Herald.)