Jenkintown School District

Stepping on Jenkintown’s political third rail

It’s time to talk School District and why the school tax is unravelling our community

Any discussion of Jenkintown inevitably leads to how much the community values its tiny little schools, and if the school has any shortcoming at all, it’s an unnamed need not yet met. By most measures, Jenkintown schools fare well in most state-wide comparisons of test scores, and everyone from parents to administrators to realtors all but fly those results up a flag pole. In the minds of many here, why mess with success?

During the last election, Pennsylvania voters approved a referendum that allows governing bodies to eliminate property taxes as a method of funding schools. In Jenkintown, we saw not a little hand-wringing over this. When I volunteered at the poll in Ward 2, I watched a school board member point to that question on the sample ballot, emphatically telling a hapless voter in a tone normally reserved for pedophiles, that “this question scares the hell out of me!”

Of course it does. Without its power to tax, a school board becomes properly focused on serving only the interests of students — not the administration and not the teachers union. A rationally empowered school board deals exclusively with curriculum, oversight of the administration, and it represents the educational concerns of the parents — full stop. It submits a budget like any municipal department to a higher, more objective authority and must then live within that budget. As someone who always has to deal with limited budgets, I can tell you it forces you to become resourceful and smarter about your job. Do you really think that a school board populated with people in or connected to academia — most with no kids in the system(!) — and who never have to worry about paying the light bill can properly represent those who struggle to live here?

Prop 1285 won’t by itself actually do much, especially here in Jenkintown, but it did serve to gauge support for a real solution to the school funding problem, the passage of the Property Tax Independence Act (PTIA), also known as HB/SB 76. If enacted, all funding for public schools in the state, with some exceptions, will come directly from the state. And yes, our school board truly hates this. No one likes to be stripped of their power, no matter how much they abuse it.

The reasons often cited against passage of 1285 and eventually HB76 strain credulity, and typically reveal someone who failed to even read the proposed bill, relying instead upon the PSEA talking points. If one reads the actual bill, every argument against gets shot down.

Fallacy: “The only folks that may benefit from this bill are retirees in big houses. The rest of us will suffer. “

If HB76 passes, our household will get upwards of a $4,000 tax break. Yes, according to HB76, income and sales taxes do rise, but the poor don’t pay income taxes, and if they don’t get stupid with money, they’ll pay almost no more in sales tax. In our case, we’d have to buy $85,000 of taxable merchandise to pay the equivalent amount of taxes.

Every year in Pennsylvania, more than 10,000 homes are listed for auction at sheriff’s sales. Many of those homes had no mortgages. The owners couldn’t afford the school tax.

Fallacy: “They will raise our income taxes (which is a volatile source of revenue) and sales tax.”

Is the property tax a stable source of revenue? Not according to the Brookings Institution.  Right in the first paragraph of this article, Brookings shoots down that assumption:

More than in past economic downturns, state and local governments were a prominent casualty of the recent recession. States in particular saw their revenues plunge. Although state taxes have been rebounding, local property taxes have dipped, consistent with a two- to three-year lag between home prices and property tax rolls. These reductions coincide with state cutbacks in local aid, further squeezing local budgets.

In other words, property taxes enjoy no immunity from the effects of an economic downturn.

The tax bill before Congress may indeed do away with the property tax deduction, but we don’t itemize so we never claimed it anyway. We are solid working class. We will surely benefit financially from the elimination of the school tax. If you make more money than us and you itemize, then we no longer have to pay so much of our income to educate your kids.

Fallacy: “The money has to come from somewhere. That sounds like unicorns and fairytales to me.”

Indeed it does have to come from somewhere, but by what reasoning should it come primarily from homeowners? Ethically, how does one justify that when everyone benefits from public education?

As I previously wrote here:

For most of the history of western civilization, only the wealthy owned property. Levying a tax served as a form of income tax, since those who owned property generated income from it. That changed with the rise of the middle class and the industrial revolution, but it changed wholesale after World War II thanks to the GI bill and the home interest deduction. With property ownership within reach of most working Americans, local governments continued to apply a 17th century solution to a 20th century problem.

Property taxes also fuel the spread of sprawl and gentrification, driving out long-time owners who can no longer afford rising assessments. Not too long ago, a drive from Willow Grove to Doylestown took you through beautiful pastoral landscapes. Today, it’s a vehicular meat grinder thanks in part to the property tax system.

If HB76 passes, here’s what happens to the JSD:

Not enough that anyone will notice. HB/SB76 freezes the budget at existing levels when the bill goes into effect. All increases in school budgets are tied to the rate of inflation.

Please note that because the School District has leveraged itself so heavily, Jenkintonians will continue to pay a property tax until the district has paid down those debts. However, the law prohibits adding to the burden without a local referendum. Also, the JSD may not expand its budget beyond state allocation without a local referendum. In other words, we all finally get a say in the matter. Anyone who objects to that objects to democracy in action.

Fallacy: “But what about renters? They also pay through their landlord.”

In no way does a family of four living in a three bedroom apartment of any size in an apartment complex in Jenkintown pay the same amount of property tax levied upon a typical three-bedroom free-standing house in this town. Our total property taxes amount to about $7,000 on a 1300 square-foot house. We have one kid in the system, so this funding scheme really hurts us.

Scare Tactic: “It’s going to be a windfall for businesses”

Unless you haven’t driven up Old York Road in the past 20 years, you know that Jenkintown needs more businesses, and the ones it does have need to do better. Putting more money in the pockets of people who employ others, invest in our town, and create wealth can only benefit the community. Plus, under HB76, the wealthy will pay more in income and sales tax.

Scare Tactic: “It will hurt our kids.”

The quality of a child’s education is mostly determined by parental involvement and not by the amount of money lavished upon each student. Jenkintown spends $26,000 per pupil. The highest ranking school in Massachusetts spends $16,000. Last year, our new superintendent sent out a letter boasting of Jenkintown’s ranking among high schools. The number one school in that list spent $13,000 per pupil. How many times do we guild the lily before it collapses under its own weight?

I am a product of a large school system. I graduated with over 400 classmates from an inner-city high school. I went to a university of more than 20,000. Yet, despite these setbacks in my education — at least by Jenkintown standards —  I have learned to question every assumption and to challenge every status quo. We used to call that critical thinking. When confronted with a phalanx of emotional individuals who insist that I am wrong, I instinctively know I’m on the right path. I know that the sky will not fall. It never does.

Our kids will be fine. If their parents have more money in their pockets, I’d argue that they’ll be far better off. If there’s one thing that Jenkintown can be proud of is the level of parental involvement, which is the real reason our school does so well in the rankings. It can only enhance their education to experience economic diversity rather than see it driven out.

Read the facts here.

Voting the Write-ins to Win!

If you are supportive of the write-in council candidates, it is very important that you vote ONLY for them if you live in the wards where they are running.

Ted Histand is running in Ward 3 against Rick Bunker and Kieran Farrell. If you vote for Kieran and Ted, you can hurt Ted’s chances of winning by adding to Kieran’s total votes. In a three-way race, a handful of votes can determine the outcome.

In Ward 4, Ryan Cella is also running in a three-way race. Please vote ONLY for Ryan if you truly want to see him win a seat.

Please share this post and please vote tomorrow.

Instructions for voting (downloadable PDF documents):

Wards 1 and 2

Ward 3

Ward 4

Why vote for Jenkintown’s write-ins?

Because Jenkintown deserves discussion, civility, and disclosure from our Borough government.

The three write-in candidates for office here in Jenkintown have issued their talking points explaining their positions. These fully explain why Walkable Jenkintown fully supports this write-in effort, if for no other reason than to remind the entrenched council that too many Jenkintonians can’t count on a fair hearing or even basic respect from our Council. We are dismissed, shut out, and even bullied for daring to question the party line.

Jenkintown Borough Council has cast 112 votes in a row without a single nay. That should give anyone some concern about the tolerance for debate on that board and in the general community. Twelve people on the board and no one disagrees? Ever?

Why vote for the write-ins, Peggy Downs for Mayor, Ryan Cella for Council, Ward 4, and Ted Histand, for Ward 3?

1.Time for new leadership and fresh voices…

  • To be in service to the community, rather than to party politics
  • Changing the culture to encourage community involvement
  • Acting as a voice of the residents and business operators

2.Time for our government to enforce our codes and laws in a fair, consistent, and timely fashion…

  • In order to maintain and preserve the character of our community, our public safety, our property values and our historic and diverse housing stock

3. Time for our policy decisions and budgeting to be fully transparent.

  • Detailed Agendas in advance
  • live stream of EVERY meeting
  • Detailed minutes and accessibility to recordings of every council session
  • Proposed Budgets posted online BEFORE they are approved

4. Time to Follow the priorities of our newly developed 2035 Comprehensive Plan…

  • Which clearly sets forth revitalization of our Town Center as the top priority for our limited investment resources (supported by survey data)

Download a PDF of these talking points and feel free to spread them around.

A Final Word about Rick Bunker

“Think about it. We have a president who is so easily played by a cable news host. What does that say to our allies?” — Mika Brzezinski

I heard that this morning as I sat down to write this. Replace “a president” with “Rick Bunker”, and “cable news host” with “blogger” you have some idea of Mr. Bunker’s thin skin,$general demeanor, and disregard for his position and his community.

Our beef with Rick Bunker began when he made the following remark about our suggestion to find a better way to maintain our sidewalks:

“This is the we’ve always done it, and it’s the way the rest of the state does it. I see no reason to support this change. No one is complaining about the way we’re doing this.”

Even when presented with overwhelming evidence of this ordinance’s waste and the hardship it imposes, all Mr. Bunker wanted to do was shut down the conversation. I knew nothing of Rick Bunker at that point (except that he owned a gun), but I knew then that I had found Jenkintown’s bette noir.

Forgive me, but when I hear a politician so emphatic in his opposition to a simple request to discuss a matter of importance, I wonder about possible corruption. For what reason would someone in a position to help be so blatantly obstructionist and hard hearted? 

We began this effort not only because we thought a wholesale method of sidewalk remediation made better sense from a financial and engineering standpoint, but admittedly because it was going to profoundly hurt our own financial situation. We went to the Borough and asked them to help us, and Rick Bunker said to suck it up.

So, we dug in and went to work. Employing the Right to Know law, we researched what the community paid for all the recent sidewalk work. Mr. Bunker called our efforts a waste of taxpayer money, except that several taxpayers wanted to know who paid what? Unlike the Borough, we could tell them. This was information that should have been readily available since the Borough asked for it on two of the four permits it used. After all, you did pay a filing fee. 

Then the Borough entirely eliminated the contractor’s estimate line item right about the time we raised this issue. Why?

Final finding? You got fleeced, our sidewalks are a mess, and Rick Bunker doesn’t care. For my efforts, he branded me a “mentally unhinged loser”.

Mr. Bunker began his attacks in earnest last summer after we began to research and report not just sidewalks, but the Borough’s governance as well.

To be fair, Mr. Bunker originally posted an unsolicited, voluminous, and rather thoughtful response on my personal Facebook page where he explains why the current ordinance makes perfect sense to him. However, no part of it addressed the unnecessary expense of the policy to homeowners or the poor results for the community. Instead he speciously justified it claiming, among other reasons, that people might want their sidewalks to look distinctive.

He also made unsupportable claims that homeowners owned the sidewalk. He might also say that homeowners own to the middle of the street (and maybe we do), but yet the Borough paves that. Trouble is, no one seems to know for sure, and least of all Rick Bunker.

Last December, I wrote about my experience interviewing for a council seat, and on January 2 of this year at 1:43 in the morning, Rick Bunker left this message on my website:

After that inexplicable, and possibly drunken post, I decided to just move on. I was done with Rick Bunker and would not engage with him. Hopefully, he would get the message and do the same. Not a chance.

We posted our article about “found money”, and Mr. Bunker left a lengthy response in the comments on the web page. I decided to withhold response. Honestly, I didn’t care what he thought. Mr. Bunker’s hypocrisy seems to know no bounds. My personal experience with the Council VP forcefully illustrates that pretense. One would think this self-proclaimed “lefty liberal” would concern himself with the plight of the little guy and with government transparency. Mr. Bunker doesn’t appear to care about either.

Finally, Mr. Bunker wrote within the Facebook page comments for that story:

Against my better judgement, I had respectfully challenged Mr. Bunker on his assertion that spending the $11,000 recycling grant “correlates” to more recycling. Mind you, we gladly recycle, but as taxpayers, we merely presented a reasonable question to a public official. Rick Bunker’s response was to call me a “mental defective”.

I have since politely asked Mr. Bunker to refrain from posting anything on our page. I don’t wish to stoop as low as our Mayor Ed Foley has with me and actually ban him. Instead, I leave it up to Mr. Bunker to see if he can maintain a modicum of civility and restraint and just leave us alone. Instead he has threatened to continue with his attacks.

Rick Bunker is unfit for public service, and I’ve spoken privately with others on the Council feel the same way. I do think that he’s an extremely intelligent person. Unlike our current president, he speaks and writes with great eloquence, but like Donald Trump, he does not suffer dissent with any civility. He displays a thin skin and a penchant for viciously attacking his opponents on social media — even at early morning hours. Yes, I’ve referred to him as a pompous bloviator, but Mr. Bunker himself agreed that the appellation suited him.

I do ask that at the very least, Council remove Mr. Bunker from his position of Vice President. He’s simply making Jenkintown look awful, and I would hope that the good people in Ward 3 would vote for his replacement.

Otherwise, Rick, Walkable Jenkintown is done with you. Hopefully, the rest of Jenkintown to follow.

Jenkintown faces a Sophie's choice: Which do we love more? Our cars or our community?

Jenkintown faces a Sophie’s choice: Our cars or our community?

It’s time to decide whether we want nice places to walk or fast places to drive

Last Monday’s Business Zoning, and Redevelopment Committees brought Graham Copeland pitching his services as a business development consultant to Jenkintown Borough. Mr. Graham seemed like an earnest guy and who brought with him at least one solid credential in the field of revitalization; the ongoing redevelopment of Fort Washington, of all places.

Most of us probably think of Fort Washington as little more than an exit off the turnpike into a soulless, flood-prone 1950s-vintage office park and little else. That looks very likely to change.

Mr. Copeland came to the BZR meeting with few specifics for Jenkintown. Yes, we want to fill the empty storefronts, and Mr. Copeland spoke of “public-private partnerships” and how he preferred targeting “mature businesses” that might open a new branch store over startup businesses. The new brewery might offer evidence for this approach. We also already have the 2035 Plan in place, for what it’s worth.

Unfortunately, the meeting barely acknowledged the 800 pound gorilla in the room. With Old York Road making our downtown a pedestrian wasteland, Mr. Copeland didn’t tell the committee what it really needs to hear: Downtown Jenkintown will never be revitalized until parking is restored on Old York Road. Of course, that won’t happen until PennDOT gives the idea its blessing, and that won’t happen until someone in power in Harrisburg orders PennDOT to do so. Any money spent on Mr. Copeland’s services is money down the drain until the state tames Old York Road.

Let’s give pedestrians their own Jenkintown

Jenkintown Plaza
We can easily imagine Jenkintown Plaza with ground floor shops.

Alternatively, we could just rezone a chunk of Jenkintown and foster commercial development there. This is not a new idea. Historically, centers of commerce have shifted within municipal borders thanks to the establishment of transportation, business, or government hubs. It happened in New York with the construction of Grand Central Terminal. In Framingham, Massachusetts, the established stagecoach services forced the route of the railroad to the south, where a new downtown quickly sprouted. Keswick Village grew up around the trolley line that took riders out to Willow Grove Park.

Why Jenkintown’s commercial district didn’t gravitate toward its train station remains something of a mystery. as are many things about Pennsylvania. When developers replaced the factories along the tracks with single-purpose office structures, Jenkintown missed a major opportunity. Imagine instead our own Keswick Village filled with shops, offices, and residences, seamlessly connected to SEPTA’s far-flung transportation network. Imagine a real transit village, and we could happily concede Old York Road to the traffic gods.

We appreciate the fact that most if not all of the people in this town would like to see Old York Road returned to its former glory. Concerts, banners, and lip service won’t do it, however. Someone needs to step up and finally slay the dragon that has stretched across our town since the day PennDOT ripped out the parking meters.