STAINS ON MY CALLING CARDS

Sometime in the Spring of 1977, prior to the concoction of the Kutztown Area School District budget, I began to think about how we might compare to the other school districts in Berks County. I knew that, in some cases, we were not as wealthy, and in some cases wealthier. I was wondering how I could do a comparison. The state used a complicated formula that came out with a four decimal place number. That would not do for the regular people to understand. I had no desire to stand in front of them explaining some arcane formula.
As I was beating myself up for being so thick, my business manager, Nick Sosik came in and told me about a number of people who had not paid their taxes since 1937. That was 40 years ago.The county had taken no action and the tax obligation was still on the books. It wasn’t but a second to understand that people don’t pay taxes for two reasons- one they are tax cheats, or two they don’t have the money to pay it. It all dawned on me at once. They don’t’ pay because their income is not high enough to allow them the extra dough. It was personal income that you could use to compare school districts and tell what those district’s tax efforts were.
By that time, I was well into my doctoral studies at Lehigh University. I had begun a friendship with Stinson Stroup, who was associated with the university and had been the attorney for the Department of Education under Governor Milton Shapp. He was now a school district solicitor and teaching at Lehigh. Stinson was one of the finest minds that I have ever met. One afternoon in the Asa Packer lunchroom, we invented a way of telling how school districts could be measured against in other on tax effort.
Since computers were not exactly available to us all, the idea of determining these things was put off for a long while. It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that a friend of mine was able to create a map, divided into Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts (there are 500 now). We were able to go back a few years to 1979 and calculate the average income per tax return in those years. You do that by taking all of the tax returns that are filled out in the state and dividing them into the total personal income. In that year the average income was $13.721
The total number of school districts of the 501 that were above the average was 300. The totals below were 201. As you look at the map, it made sense. There were enough places where people were making a decent living, to make a school funding formula that would be fair. It also made for a more stable economic, political and social climate. The malaise of the early 1980’s and the years since then had not set in yet.
As the years went by, I developed maps that showed the difference between 1979 and the following years. Each year was a bit worse than the one before. The dichotomy of personal income in the state was growing dramatically. As a small example ( and a cherry picked statistic), the difference between the poorest and wealthiest school district in 1979 was 35%. The difference in 2009 was close to 900%.
I recently secured the latest map. The results were worse than ever. Now, only 115 school district are above the average and 385 are below (we combined two school districts two years ago). The average income is now $49,910. Do you wonder why there is so much turmoil out there? Just let me show you my calling cards, which I make in to 3×4 posters, which are increasingly stained by tears, and not only mine

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