Editor’s Note: The following letter was sent to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District School Committee. It was also submitted to The Berkshire Edge:
Dear School Committee:
With respect to the ongoing budget woes of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, I would like to suggest that the issue of fairly allocating the tax burden among the three towns is both the cause and the potential solution. Indeed, resolving the fairness issue is probably going to be a prerequisite for moving forward on any new spending initiatives, whether in the operating budget or for capital projects. Furthermore, a proper resolution will have the flexibility to accommodate additional towns if they should choose to merge into our District.
After the second MMRHS renovation vote last year, I proposed that the allocation formula be changed from one that assesses the towns based on their resident student populations to one that is based on their taxable property values.
Let me restate the philosophical underpinnings of my fairness argument. Every political entity taxes its constituents to pay for the services that it provides. Police, fire, town manager and other employees, road repair, etc., are all services that each of the three towns provides for its residents, and it is fair that the residents of each town pay accordingly. However, public education is not provided by the towns individually – it is provided by the school district that they created to do that task more efficiently than they could do it themselves. The relevant political entity for local education is the BHRSD itself. Its borders are defined by the three towns, but it shouldn’t matter where the taxpayers who support the BHRSD live, as long as they live within the BHRSD borders. If two neighbors have the GB/Stockbridge line running between their properties, and both properties have identical assessed values, why is it fair that the GB neighbor is paying much more to support public education than the Stockbridge neighbor?
In New York State, most public school districts (including my own childhood K-12 East Greenbush Central School District) issue their own tax bills to the residents of their districts. In Massachusetts, we aren’t organized that way, so the school budgets are funded through the towns. However, there is nothing legally preventing our three towns, if they all agree, from making the allocation formula produce a result that looks exactly like the New York State method in terms of its effect on taxpayers, which is what I have proposed. (See an amended draft district agreement at the end of this letter)
Let’s also remember what public education is about. Do we tell a family with ten school-age children living in a modest home that they must pay higher taxes than a childless couple living on a grand estate? Of course not. If the number of children using the services of the school district were the basis for what people paid, that would describe a private school system, not a public one. OK, then why should the fact that Great Barrington (a REALLY large but relatively blue-collar family) has more students in our public schools than Stockbridge (another fairly large but relatively more affluent family) make any difference to the tax rate for public education borne by the two families?
How would this work in practice? In the accompanying spreadsheet (above), I used the FY 2014 assessed property values of the three towns to answer two questions: (1) How would the current school budget (FY 2015) have looked if it had been allocated to the three towns based on their assessed property values?, and (2) How much larger could that budget have been under that allocation formula if GB had continued to contribute the same dollars that it actually did?
The answer to my first question is that GB would have paid $2.9 million less in taxes, Stockbridge would have paid over $3.1 million more, and West Stockbridge would have saved a little more than $0.2 million. The answer to my second question is that the District would have had $5.5 million more to spend ($4.9 million from Stockbridge and $0.6 million from West Stockbridge).
The spreadsheet is designed to allow for easy comparison of alternative budget levels, because the “Total” dollar number in the “Flat GB” column is an independent variable. For example, if you enter $19,600 in place of the $23,627 that is there now, you’ll see that with a school budget that is $1.5 million greater than the FY 2015 actual, GB would have paid $2.2 million less, Stockbridge would have paid $3.6 million more, and West Stockbridge would have essentially no change from their actual contribution.
I think the take-away from this analysis is that Stockbridge is undertaxed. The solution to the District’s budget woes is simply to set the town allocations according to their assessed tax bases. That way, every taxpayer is supporting public education at the same rate.
I’m not trying to minimize the political difficulty – perhaps even impossibility – of amending the District agreement to accomplish this, given that all three towns must agree. However, the actual language of the amendment itself would be very simple and straightforward, and it is attached here. As additional towns join the BHRSD or merge their school districts with ours, this formula would continue to work.
Additionally, I have included below my response to one School Committee member, and suggested a procedure that would lead to a reconstituted BHRSD.
39 Alford Road
Below is the Apportionment and Payment of Costs paragraph of the existing BHRSD agreement, with a proposed amended text following it:
SECTION IV APPORTIONMENT AND PAYMENT OF COSTS INCURRED BY THE DISTRICT
As Amended May 21, 1979
(A) Apportionment of Costs
All costs for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1980 and for each fiscal year thereafter shall be apportioned to the member towns on the basis of their respective pupil enrollment in the District. Each member town’s proportionate share of such costs shall be determined by multiplying the amount of the budget adopted by the District pursuant to sub-section V(C) by the ratio that such member town’s pupil enrollment in the District on October 1 of the calendar year next preceding the fiscal year for which the apportionment is determined bears to the total pupil enrollment of all the member towns.
Replace the “Apportionment of Costs” paragraph (A) above with the following language:
“All costs for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2015 and for each fiscal year thereafter shall be apportioned to the member towns on the basis of their assessed taxable property value. Each member town’s proportionate share of such costs shall be determined by multiplying the amount of the budget adopted by the District pursuant to sub-section V(C) by the ratio that such member town’s most current assessed taxable property value bears to the total assessed taxable property value of all the member towns.”
The following is my response to a School Committee member:
Dear School Committee,
I’m sharing with you an email that I wrote in response to one of your members because it corrects a possible mis-impression and highlights a path for quick action:
“Thank you for your note. I wrote to the School Committee not because I believed that it has the power to effect the change on its own, but rather because it is the appropriate body to initiate the process. Here is what the District agreement says about that process:
Any proposal for amendment, except a proposal for amendment providing for the withdrawal of a member town (which shall be acted upon as provided in Section IX) , may be initiated by a vote of a majority of all the members of the Committee or by a petition signed by at least 10 per cent of the registered voters of any one of the member towns. In the latter case, said petition shall contain at the end thereof a certification by the town clerk of such member town as to the number of registered voters in said town according to the most recent voting list and the number of signatures on the petition which appear to be the names of registered voters of said town and said petition shall be presented to the secretary of the Committee. In either case, the secretary of the Committee shall mail or deliver a notice in writing to the board of selectmen of each of the member towns that a proposal to amend this agreement has been made and shall enclose a copy of such proposal (without the signatures in the case of a proposal by petition) . The selectmen of each member town shall include in the warrant for the next annual or a special town meeting called for the purpose of an article stating the proposal or the substance thereof. Such amendment shall take effect upon its acceptance by all the member towns, acceptance by each town to be by a majority vote at a town meeting as aforesaid.”
The timing is actually quite fortuitous, because the Committee could vote to propose the amendment for approval by each of the three town annual meetings coming up. It may be impossible to get Stockbridge voters’ consent, but we won’t know until we try, and the attempt will at least be educational. Even though it would only require a majority vote of the Committee to submit the amendment, it would be much more powerful if the Committee endorsed it unanimously, because that would show that even the Stockbridge members believed that it was the right thing to do, notwithstanding the impact on their own pocketbooks.
By the way, I didn’t make my proposal with the intention of “lowering Great Barrington’s burden.” GB voters have shown by their approval of budgets to date that they are willing to accept their current level of taxation. My point is that the excruciatingly tight environment for any increases in operating or capital budgets could be greatly improved if Stockbridge and West Stockbridge voters were taxed at the same rate as GB voters for purposes of supporting the BHRSD budget. If they were, then it would raise $5.5 million more for the District. If that’s too much, then the District could increase its budget by, say, $1.5 million, and West Stockbridge would see no increase or decrease, Stockbridge would see a smaller increase, and GB would see a decrease.
None of this requires the intervention of the state legislature. If all three town meetings approve this amendment, it would take effect on July 1. We are not changing the “tax and governance” structure. The towns would still support themselves and the District from property taxes on their residents and businesses. The only thing that changes is the District allocation formula, which would indirectly ensure that every $1,000 of assessed valuation in the District would support the BHRSD budget at the same rate.”
To add to what I said in that reply above, I expect that Stockbridge taxpayers are as concerned about the quality of our public education as GB taxpayers, yet they are currently taxing themselves at barely more than one-third the rate of GB to support our District ($3.30 per thousand of assessed property value, versus $9.54 for GB and $7.92 for West Stockbridge). If the proposed amendment were adopted, it would mean a $7.32 rate for all three towns based on the FY 2015 budget. If that rate were raised by $0.60 for FY 2016 to the $7.92 rate currently being paid by West Stockbridge (meaning that their taxpayers should be indifferent), that would provide the District with $1.5 million more revenue from the towns.
Let’s quickly get approval – if we can – from the three town meetings, which would put in place the mechanism that we need to put our District on a firm financial footing. Then the BHRSD can begin the happy task of deciding what new educational programs, staffing, and capital projects would be of greatest benefit to our students. We would also be an even more attractive merger magnet for other school districts who might wish to join us in more efficient use of our joint facilities, with the added benefit of ameliorating or substantially eliminating the financial burden of choice-in and tuition-in students (who would have become resident students in an expanded District whose towns would be paying that same full-freight tax rate as GB, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge).