June 23, 2011; Source: phillyBurbs.com | As of 2009, charter schools in Pennsylvania have been deemed to be tax exempt nonprofits. When the legislature updated the state’s school codes, it made its position crystal clear about charter schools, or so it seemed:  “All school property real and personal, owned by any charter school, cyber charter school or an associated nonprofit foundation . . . shall be made exempt from every kind of state, county, city, borough, township or other tax, including payments in lieu of taxes established through agreement with the Commonwealth or any local taxing authority.” 

That’s pretty clear. Charter schools can’t even be hit up for PILOTs. For good measure, the legislature added, “any agreement entered into by a charter school . . . with the Commonwealth or a local taxing authority for payments in lieu of taxes prior to December 31, 2009, shall be null and void.”

That presumably would have applied to the annual payments that the School Lane Charter School had been making to the Bensalem School District pursuant to an agreement stuck in 1998. But with the legislature’s action, School Lane stopped its payments and did not deliver the $177,500 it was scheduled to pay in 2009 and the $184,000 that the contract would have required for 2010. 

Bensalem district lawyers are hauling School Lane into court to get the 2009 and 2010 payments and force the school to get back into the annual payment swing of things. According to the district, School Lane acquired a former elementary school — from the Bensalem district — for $1.2 million. Part of that contract mandated the annual payments to the district.

By suing School Lane, the Bensalem district is challenging the law itself. When it was passed, then governor Ed Rendell vetoed it, claiming that it would make not only the charter schools into tax exempt nonprofits, but also the groups that were renting space to charter schools, and he felt that was unconstitutional. 

The notoriously cantankerous Pennsylvania legislator overrode Rendell’s veto, but his veto rationale may be the substance of the Bensalem suit against School Lane. The district says that the charter school amendment in the public school code on tax exemption “is not applicable because of the underlying agreement of sale,” according to the district’s lawyer, essentially saying that the contract is protected from the school code by the contract clauses of the U.S. Constitution. 

Can the legislature retroactively change the terms of the Bensalem-School Lange contract? —Rick Cohen