Straddling the western border of Chester County where the imposing mansions of the Philadelphia exurbs surrender to rolling hillsides and lush green horse farms, the Octorara Area School District is situated in one of the region’s most pastoral settings.
It also has been a battleground, where property owners have learned that open space can come with a price. With thousands of acres designated as “farmland,” off-limits to taxation, the district has some of the highest property tax rates in the region.
But after an era of sharply rising levies and taxpayer agitation, administrators have promised something for 2014-15 that residents of the 2,550-student district are not used to: A fiscal cease-fire.
District officials say Octorara – with the highest school-tax rate in Chester County after a spike of 68 percent in the last decade – has enough surplus to stave off a fresh increase.
“Our taxes are still high,” said Thomas Newcome, longtime superintendent of the district, which has an 83 percent graduation rate and above-average state scores in math, reading, and writing at the junior-senior high school.
“We are a poor rural school district with a low tax base and all the requirements of all the districts that are wealthier, and it all falls on our homeowners, so that hasn’t changed.”
Spread over 93 square miles, the district encompasses eight towns, including two in Lancaster County, which stand to get a slight tax decrease.
School officials and activists agree that although the tax news is good, it speaks to a new normal for many of Pennsylvania’s beleaguered school districts – that after five years of tax increases and contentious spending cuts since the 2008 financial crisis, schools have reached a fragile equilibrium.
Newcome said Octorara was using $1.4 million of its reserve to stave off tax increases, and was avoiding program and salary cuts. Overall, its $48 million proposed 2014-15 budget represents a 1.8 percent increase.
“I really think that we need to take a hard look at these increases in the budget and pull them back,” said Timothy Alexander, a low-tax activist who was elected to the school board last year.