To the Editor:
It is fortuitous when principle, pragmatism, and politics intersect to enable good public policy, and I believe we have that confluence now.
As previously reported, the Great Barrington Special Town Meeting on January 26th approved virtually unanimously my Article 2 endorsing an Education Finance Reform Act for the Commonwealth. Several citizens have subsequently asked me whether the Berkshire Hills Regional School District is a special case, and how such a law would affect other regional school districts throughout the state. In response, I have analyzed each of the 58 academic regional school districts in Massachusetts by comparing their current (FY2017) assessments to their member towns with how those assessments would have changed assuming that the proposed Act was already fully implemented. That analysis is in the form of a spreadsheet with 118 tabs (two for each district, plus two summary tabs). Reproduced below this letter are the results for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.
The “Towns” summary tab lists all of the member towns in all of the districts in alphabetical order, showing for each town how much its assessment would have gone up or down, and how many voters were registered in that town as of last November. The “Totals” line at the bottom shows that over $73 million of tax burden would have shifted from the property tax payers of some towns to the property tax payers of other towns. However, that line also shows that 54 percent of the registered voters would have benefited from such a change, compared to 46 percent who would have been adversely affected.
That result is not surprising, since the current allocation formula favors member towns that are – relatively speaking – property-rich and kid-poor, often with higher proportions of second homeowners and families who can afford to send their students to private schools.
That’s the “politics” part of the confluence, but raw vote-counting alone doesn’t ensure good public policy. The “principle” part, however, supports it also. As the Warrant exposition states, “All children are entitled to a free education paid for by all members of their community in proportion to their ability to pay, not on how many children they have, if any.” That is a bedrock principle of public education.
Looking at the third stream, “pragmatism,” reveals the true public policy benefits of the proposed Act. Member towns whose citizens feel overtaxed compared to other towns in their school district are reluctant to fund robust school operating budgets – however well-designed – or new capital projects. The “Districts” summary tab lists each district, together with the additional amount of money that the district would have had available to spend on enhanced educational programs if all of its member towns had paid a tax rate equal to the rate paid by the town with the highest rate. For all 58 districts, that additional amount in FY2017 would have been $210 million.
It would be unlikely, of course, that after implementation of the Act the member towns of a district would vote to approve a school budget that would require immediately raising the unified rate to the highest rate previously paid. More likely would be something in-between, where the schools would be better financed and the most highly taxed member towns’ taxpayers would get some relief over time.
Note that the mechanism described in Warrant Article #2 for transitioning to the new apportionment method does not actually reduce anyone’s taxes from current levels. If the next year’s school budget is the same as the budget in the year of enactment, the amount that each town pays would remain unchanged. However, as budgets increase, those increases would be borne by the member towns paying less than the unified rate until the unified rate had reached the level paid by the town with the previously highest rate.
The writer is a member of the Regional Agreement Amendment Committee of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
Berkshire Hills Regional School District
Southern Berkshire Regional School District