The vote was the latest attempt to reform a long-criticized system of taxation that traces its lineage to the Middle Ages.
And the resulting bill is so laden with referendums that some school officials figure no matter which tax option they choose, voters might come after them with pitchforks.
``This is tax non-reform,'' said Charles Linderman, the business manager of the Great Valley district in Chester County and incoming president of the state school boards association.
Yesterday, Linderman, Abel and other school administrators said that while they were not yet sure what they were looking at, the bill did not solve their problems - and created some new ones.
It's called the Taxpayers' Local Control Act. For each of Pennsylvania's school districts, it offers an intricate series of options, all subject to voter approval. It begins to shift the burden away from property tax and onto wage taxes - but not onto the stock-and-bond portfolios of the wealthiest taxpayers.
The bill passed this week would allow districts to exempt a portion of homeowners' property value from taxation and to impose a wage tax - also known as an earned-income tax - of up to 1.5 percent to make up the lost revenue.
Districts could also get rid of so-called nuisance taxes, such as occupational and per-capita taxes - typically, $10 per citizen per year - that make up a small percentage of school funding.
And that's just the simple part.
``I've been dealing with this from the business-manager level,'' said Joe Otto, business manager of Delaware County's William Penn School District. ``It is confusing - and this is my business.''
A school district would have to appoint a ``tax commission'' to decide whether to change the tax menu. Any changes would be subject to voter referendums, and officials said yesterday that the whole process could take one to two years.
If a school board fails to put the wage-tax option on the ballot within two years, voters can circulate a petition and force the issue.
School administrators said they hadn't even begun to calculate how any changes might affect taxpayers.
The bill appears to benefit the elderly and others on fixed incomes at the expense of some wage earners and renters.
Gov. Ridge has said he'll sign the bill into law. ``This bill will give local taxpayers more choices than they have ever had before,'' he said.
The legislation had no shortage of critics, who said it was little more than tax-shifting. They pointed out that it didn't address the thornier and more explosive issue of school-funding equity and how much the state should contribute to ensure quality schools in districts rich and poor.
That issue is the subject of separate Commonwealth Court suits filed by 218 smaller districts and Philadelphia. The outcome of those suits could affect local school taxes more than the tax-reform measure.
Delaware County Councilman Wallace Nunn, a Republican, said that giving an impoverished city such as Chester the option of raising money by property or wage taxes is the equivalent of giving someone the option of shooting himself with a .38 or a .44 magnum.
The changes would hold no benefit for Philadelphia, said David Glancey, chairman of the Board of Revision of Taxes. The city has no desire to raise its 4.79 percent wage tax.
Abel said that he was particularly uncomfortable with the referendums component and that the fast-growing Central Bucks district, the fourth-largest in the state, would simply continue relying on property taxes.
The bill marks the latest effort to change a system inherited from days of old, pointed out Charles Hoffman, local-government policy manager for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
``WAY, WAY BACK'' ``The property tax goes way, way back into the darkest Middle Ages, even before there was much of a money economy,'' said Hoffman.
In recent years, it has come under increasing attack as state school subsidies have decreased, tax bases have shrunk in the cities and their closest suburbs, and the number of elderly people on fixed incomes has grown. Meanwhile, school costs have risen. All these factors have fueled taxpayer discontent.
The stage for the change was set in November when voters approved a constitutional amendment giving school boards and town and county governments the power to try to lower their reliance on property taxes. Under the bill passed this week, that power was confined to school districts.
The state Constitution requires that all properties within a county be assessed at the same rate, theoretically based on 100 percent of market value. The bill permits homes to be assessed at lower rates than businesses; thus some of the value of each home would be exempt from taxes.
The catch: The money would have to be made up somehow, primarily through wage taxes.
School officials say they don't look forward to asking voters to enact new wage taxes.
``I am fully and adamantly opposed,'' said Donald Clarke of the Tredyffrin-Easttown school board in Chester County. ``Enough money is already taken off in federal income tax, state income tax.''
Years ago, Clarke's board proposed a wage tax. Board President Andrea Felkins said it failed after hundreds of parents packed the Conestoga High School gym to oppose it.
In Philadelphia, tax board chairman Glancey said the city was unlikely to reconsider the way it funds schools. He said if the bill's maximum property-tax break were applied, city schools - already expecting an $85 million deficit - would have to find a way to make up another $72 million or so.
One taxpayer advocate, William Kasimir of the Methacton school board in Montgomery County, said the measure gives long-awaited relief to property owners, especially older people on fixed incomes.
But Norman B. Nields, a lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons and a member of the Advisory Council of the state Department of Aging, said he was ``terribly disappointed'' and would have preferred to see a ``personal income tax'' - one that taxes all income except that derived from Social Security and most pensions. That was in the Senate package - until the last minute, when it was deleted to make the law more acceptable to the House of Representatives, said State Sen. James A. Gerlach (R., Chester).
``We preferred to give local school districts that option,'' said Gerlach, a key supporter of the bill. ``But at the end of the day, if you don't have support from the House and from the governor's office, then you can't get it done.''
Abel, in Central Bucks, said that without the personal income tax as an option, the bill favors the rich.
``People who are very wealthy and have a lot of unearned income will pay no taxes,'' he complained.
Otto, of the William Penn district, said that in districts such as his, with an aging population and declining real estate values, neither property nor wage taxes are the answer.
``Basically, this is just a tax shift,'' said Otto. ``What would help this district is if the state would properly fund us.''
* Following is how Philadelphia-area House members voted on the bill, which would allow school districts to eliminate so-called nuisance taxes and cut property taxes by shifting to an earned-income tax.
Philadelphia. Bishop (D) yes, Butkovitz (D) did not vote, Carn (D) yes, Cohen, M. (D) no, Donatucci (D) yes, Evans (D) no, Horsey (D) did not vote, James (D) no, Josephs (D) no, Keller (D) yes, Kenney (R) yes, Lederer (D) yes, Manderino (D) yes, McGeehan (D) yes, Myers (D) yes, O'Brien (R) yes, Oliver (D) yes, Perzel (R) yes, Ramos (D) yes, Rieger (D) yes, Roebuck (D) yes, Taylor, J. (R) yes, Thomas (D) yes, Washington (D) no, Williams, A. (D) yes, Wogan (R) yes, Youngblood (D) yes
Bucks County. Clymer (R) yes, Corrigan (D) no, Digirolamo (R) yes, Druce (R) yes, McIlhinney (R) yes, Melio (D) no, Reinard (R) yes, Steil (R) no, Wright (R) yes
Chester County. Flick (R) yes, Hennessey (R) yes, Hershey (R) yes, Ross (R) yes, Rubley (R) no, Schroder (R) yes, Taylor, E. (R) yes
Delaware County. Adolph (R) yes, Barrar (R) yes, Civera (R) yes, Gannon (R) yes, Kirkland (D) yes, Micozzie (R) yes, Raymond (R) yes, Ryan (R) did not vote, Vitali (D) no
Montgomery County. Bard (R) no, Bunt (R) yes, Cohen L. (no), Cornell (R) yes, Curry (D) no, Fichter (R) yes, Gladeck (R) yes, Godshall (R) yes, Lawless (R) no, McGill (R) yes, Reber (R) yes, Williams, C. (D) no