Last week, departing Pittsburgh school-board President Darlene Harris shilled one last time for the Holy Taxpayer, pushing passage of a "homestead exemption" on school property taxes, which makes the first $10,000 of each city home tax-free. This move would cost the district $6.7 million, and (given the present millage rate of 13.92) save qualifying homeowners about $139 annually.
Harris' term on the board ends in December. She'll be replaced by Patrick Dowd, an Ellis School history teacher and parent of four public schools kids. The change in the District 2 seat -- representing Spring Hill, Troy Hill, Lawrenceville, Highland Park -- will probably shift the board's balance of power away from the current Harris-dominated majority bloc, which plugged for "neighborhood schools" over broader district interests.
"I had made a commitment" to the tax break, Harris said last week. "I want this to be one of my last actions. I voted 'no' on that tax increase [in 2000]. I feel this should go back to the taxpayers, because I will not be here to vote on it next month."
"Now at the 11th hour, you want to do this?" croaked board member Bill Isler, hoarse from a cold. As soon as Dowd and another new board member, Dan Romaniello of Brookline, take office, the new board will have to consider and vote on the 2004 budget in its entirety, before the end of the year. Aside from Harris' proposal, another tax cut -- 0.6 or 0.7 mills -- is already planned for next year, due to the state-mandated anti-windfall provision of the reassessment.
"This is about taxpayers," Harris said.
"Mrs. Harris, you've served on this board for many years, and this is the same rhetoric. You've put us in a political situation," board member Randall Taylor complained, since it would be politically impossible for a new majority to repeal the exemption once passed.
Harris almost certainly has the votes to pass the homestead exemption before next month's full-budget deliberations, and she probably will be granted her last wish.
Kids don't vote, and even their parents are a negligibly small demographic. In Pittsburgh's geritocracy, "taxpayer" usually means "elderly homeowner." It's often been repeated that 87 percent of Pittsburgh households don't have any children in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Since 78 percent of the city's children do attend public school, the vast majority of Pittsburgh households must have no school-aged children at all. It's the older, childless majority who the school board is catering to -- at least for another few days.