Despite initially bleak budget forecasts for the upcoming school year, only one school district in York County chose to raise property taxes above its state-permitted tax cap this year.
To go above the cap, districts have to apply for permission from the state Department of Education. This year, only the Central York, South Western, West York and York Suburban districts applied for exceptions.
At the end of the budget season, only the West York school board decided to use the exceptions permitted.
Depending on the district, the exceptions would have helped cover retirement or special education costs, or a combination of both.
District officials said the exceptions applications were precautionary, to be used only if districts could not whittle down deficits in the face of rising special education and pension costs, which rose 21 percent this year.
Increase: West York's tax rate will rise from 20.7 to 21.8 mills, an increase of 5.3 percent. Based on average properties, homeowners in West York borough will pay an increase of about $74 and residents in West Manchester Township will pay an additional $137 this fall.
The other three districts that applied raised taxes to their permitted caps, meaning taxes will rise 2.1 percent in York Suburban, 2.5 percent in South Western and 2.6 percent in Central York.
Only York City has yet to adopt its budget, but that's expected on Wednesday; the district isn't seeking exceptions to go above its 3.4 percent cap.
Elsewhere, all districts are holding tax increases under 2.8 percent, with the Red Lion Area and Dallastown Area districts not having any tax increase in the fall.
The state uses a formula to set the caps, which allow for an inflationary adjustment to the tax rate, said Jeff Mummert, business manager at the South Western School District.
It's a widely held belief that those caps establish a "reasonable" tax increase, he said, which is why South Western's board applies for the exceptions but has only used them once since the caps were established.
"I think the challenge or incentive is to try to stay at or below that level," Mummert said.
West York: In West York, raising taxes above the cap was a decision driven mainly by the growing cost of special education and pensions, said Rodney Drawbaugh, West York's board president.
"We tried hard not to have to do what we're doing, but things have just caught up to us," he said.
Drawbaugh, who has been on the school board for almost 12 years, said the board's fiscal responsibility in past years has helped hold off on major cuts that several York County school districts suffered.
But the years of savings ran out. The district was already facing the furlough of 19 professional staff and the layoff of 10 support staff, and the board felt the $788,246 in exceptions were necessary to keep other cuts at bay, Drawbaugh said.
The district has made up some of that ground in recent months: With additional retirements or resignations, seven professional staff will be able to keep their jobs, with another possible position to be saved in July, Superintendent Emilie Lonardi said.
'Villains': Increasing expectations from the state, without increased funding, make local school boards the scapegoat, Drawbaugh said.
"Something has to give soon," he said. "Because here we are as the boards in local school districts, trying to deal with all these mandates that are put on us with no funding. We're the ones who are seen as villains to the taxpayers."
Drawbaugh said he's paying taxes, too, and doesn't like to see the hikes.
But the board's goal is to provide quality education in the district for all students, he said.