Importing meeting: High School Funding Formula

From: Gail Marshall

Fri, Nov 28, 2008 at 7:08 PM

To: [undisclosed recipients]

Dear Folks,

I want to let you know (remind you) of an important meeting for the high school scheduled for Thursday, December 4th at 7 PM in the high school auditorium. It is being sponsored by the MDI League of Towns. The topic is whether or not the present high school funding formula is fair. Unfortunately I will be out of town that week, so you will not see me at that meeting, but I want to urge you to attend.

As I presume you know, the high school has been since the 1960s a collaborative effort between the four towns on MDI. The funding formula that has been in effect since then is one that apportions the budgetary assessment to each of the towns based 67% on the property tax valuation of each town and 33% on the number of students each town has in the high school at any one time. Therefore, if you use a different rubric to look at the apportionment, say, only a cost per pupil sent, you are going to see that Mount Desert seems to pay a lot more per pupil sent than other towns because of our perennially robust property values relative to other towns. That is the rubric that some in our town have been pressing for the past several years. Cost per pupil is, in their stated opinion, the only fair way to look at the bill. That assertion is often accompanied by threats to attempt to withdraw the town from the high school system.

It has long been my position that maintaining an island-wide high school system is vital to the needs of high school students from the town of Mount Desert. There is no way that any one town could replicate the services we now provide together. To attempt to do that would be to turn back the hands of time to the middle of the last century.  The only way to successfully run a system like ours is for member communities to consider ourselves part of a greater whole in this respect, not parochially-minded individual units.

For me the fundamental question is what formula taxes similarly-situated taxpayers in every town as equally as possible. Property taxes are the method for funding essential services in our communities. We all pay to support those services regardless of how much we individually use the service based on the assessed value of our real estate. So, I pay for the fire station based on my property value whether or not I have a fire this year. I pay the same rate for the high school now that my child has graduated than I did when she was a student here. And I should pay approximately the same if my house were picked up and moved to another town. How many high school students happen to be in my town at any one time should be irrelevant as long as my tax bill is similar in each town. I am not buying an equally-priced ticket to the high school for each Mount Desert student. I am paying to support a vital community resource. Taxpayers in my town, in the aggregate, have far more assessed value than taxpayers in any other town. Valuation should be taxed equally across the board. If the formula that flows from that principle is 100% valuation or 100% pupil census, 50/50%, the current ratio or some other formula altogether is not of concern to me. The issue is, and must be, equity for each taxpayer regardless of where on MDI s/he owns property. Appeals to principles that disproportionally favor taxpayers of one town over the other are self-serving and should be rejected by all. Even though its adoption might lower my property taxes some (the more the property value, the more the tax cut), I suggest that the cost-per-pupil assertion fails the fairness test and therefore must be rejected.

At the meeting on the 4th Rob Liebow, our superintendent, is going to be presenting a comprehensive review of the facts and figures that accompany the various perspectives in this debate. (I believe Rob's data is already on the Union 98 web site, but as I write this over Thanksgiving weekend, the site seems to be down. Perhaps Rob could verify it is there and provide a link when it is back up?) There will be time for a lot of  Q & A and audience input. The purpose of the meeting is to attempt to inform and gauge community sentiment on this issue.

If a formula change is to be accomplished, practically speaking, it would have to be by general consent of all parties. The high school governance and funding formula was created by a private and special act of the state Legislature. The only politically feasible way provisions of the act will change is if the communities involved can be persuaded that a change is warranted and that a failure to change would work an injustice. If that is the broad consensus, then so be it. But if it is the general consensus that the current formula remains, rather remarkably after all these years, as fair as we can make it, then those members of our community who so persistently advocate otherwise should be encouraged to accept things as they are. A continuation of the challenges and threats will serve no one well. It will serve only to undermine support vital to the well being of the high school. There is nothing wrong with raising an issue. But, there is something wrong with persisting ad infinitum regardless of how the facts present themselves.

Please feel free to pass on my request to others.

Thanks for considering this matter, and for attending on the 4th.

Gail Marshall
MDES school board member and High School Board chair.