Lawsuit lose out

Investigating LMSD’s decade long lawsuit

Dating back to 2010, LMSD was launched into national spotlight from reports of the district using the webcams on standard issued laptops to access student photos and screenshots. The lawsuit was settled with $175,000 going to the son of the initial plaintiffs, David Robbins, and an additional $10,000 going to another student named Jalil Hassan who brought an additional lawsuit. The attorney representing the plaintiffs, Mark Haltzman, received $425,000 from the district.

With national networks such as CNN covering the issue, LMSD was briefly surrounded by negative press not only on the national level, but among the district’s residents. Now, as the district attempts to balance desires for lights on Arnold Field, full day kindergarten, changed start times, and new facilities for Black Rock Middle School, lawsuits are demanding increased amounts of the budget. The money redirected towards legal endeavors prevents implementation of new district programs.

The current lawsuit, raised by aviation lawyer Arthur Wolk along with two other original plaintiffs, regards the increases in school taxes by LMSD. Citing repeated budget deficits, LMSD justified a 4.4% increase in taxes for the 2016-17 school year. Based on the Act 1 Index of the Property Tax Relief of Pennsylvania’s Department of Education policy, certain maximums are set regarding Pennsylvania school districts’ ability to increase school taxes. However, LMSD claimed that budget deficits allowed for further tax increases up to 4.4%, even though the Act 1 Index established the permissible maximum increase in taxes at 2.4% for that school year. The supposed budget deficit turned out to be an actual surplus in the budget, with a $3.2 million surplus in the budget from the 2015-2016 school year as opposed to the acclaimed $9 million deficit. After initial legal filings, LMSD was mandated to reduce district taxes to the aforementioned 2.4% maximum increasable level by Montgomery County District Judge Joseph Smyth.

Zooming forward to 2022, the lawsuit ultimately ended with LMSD settling to offer $27 million back to township taxpayers. The final legal settlement’s acceptance was confirmed in a June meeting of the School Board, with approval from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas on October 20. The legal proceedings that lasted for more than five years have finally terminated with a settlement between the school district and Wolk and the other plaintiffs. With the initial judge
order in mind (only residents in Lower Merion Township as of August 2016), a grand total of $15 million will be paid back to these property owners. On top of this initial amount to be paid out, in 2023, 2024, and 2025, LM will issue rebates to township taxpayers. Rebates are typically tax funds given back to taxpayers after having overpaid for a given period. These rebates will run the budget roughly $4 million annually. If the district happens to experience unanticipated surpluses in the budget, the district will be required to pay back 50% of these gains to district taxpayers.

The lawsuit will serve to place constraints on LMSD’s budget moving forward. In order to enact new policies, the district will try to find the balance from paying these legal fees and meeting these community desires. For example, in recent school board meetings, LMSD has communicated their reluctance in moving forward with certain policies due to these anticipated constraints. Since it is difficult to anticipate future lawsuits, LMSD will have to move forward with portions due to the community. LMSD’s budget will be monitored to serve both legal and student needs as the district moves forward.

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