Soundings: Traffic and tuition

Labor Day, each year, concludes the season when we’re apt to grow most resentful of the Vineyard’s summer people and begins the season when we should be most grateful for them.

The season of gridlock, when I can bicycle to work in Edgartown more quickly than I can get there by car, is winding down. The season is almost over when we time-shift our grocery shopping to avoid the longest lines. And a week from today, the thinning fleet of tour buses will be joined by a parade of yellow school buses as the new academic year opens on September 8 at public schools across the Island.

We like to think of the Vineyard as unique, so at the opening of this new school year, here are some numbers that underscore how truly remarkable our situation is:

First, we are a community that spends more on educating its children than practically any other region of the state. In the 2009-2010 school year, the most recent for which the Massachusetts Department of Education has complete data, schools across the commonwealth spent an average of $13,055 per pupil on public education. Our regional high school ranked seventh among all 329 schools in Massachusetts, spending $23,439 per pupil — close to twice the state average. The Up-Island district ranked tenth, spending $22,275 per pupil. Edgartown placed thirteenth, spending $20,821 per pupil, and Tisbury spent $19,127 per student, placing twenty-first. Oak Bluffs ranked thirty-fifth, spending a total of $8.3 million on public schooling, nearly as much as Edgartown — but its higher enrollment of more than 470 students drove its per-pupil cost down to $17,517.

Since the financial engine that drives public schooling is local property taxes, you might expect that the Massachusetts towns spending most on education should have the highest tax rates. But here again, the Vineyard’s uniqueness comes into play, because in fact our tax rates are among the lowest in the state.

In the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s 2011 ranking of 351 towns by property tax rate, all six of the Vineyard towns placed in the lowest 30. Chilmark’s tax rate of $2.13 per thousand dollars of assessed value was the lowest for any town in the state but Gosnold. Edgartown’s rate of $3.40 was fourth-lowest and Aquinnah’s $3.86 rate was sixth-lowest. West Tisbury’s rate of $4.73 put the town in ninth place, and Oak Bluffs ranked twenty-third at $7.03. The highest residential tax rate on the Island was Tisbury, whose rate of $7.52 put it in twenty-ninth place — just over half the median Massachusetts rate of $13.50 per thousand.

The highest school spending, paid for with the lowest tax rates — how do we do it? This seeming disconnect is possible because summer residents, who have built so lavishly across Martha’s Vineyard, provide a huge reservoir of assessed valuation to tax. This valuable real estate belongs to people who spend their summer months here, contributing dollars to town coffers but no students to Island schools.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, in its Island Plan published last year, estimated that seasonal homeowners and their guests buy 38 percent of all the goods and services sold here. If you add vacationers and day-trippers, the seasonal component of our economy jumps to about 64 percent. These are numbers to ponder the next time you’re stuck in July’s glacial crawl of traffic into Edgartown.

But one number I’ve never seen stated with any authority is the portion of all Island property taxes that’s paid by seasonal, nonresident property owners. Town assessors whose opinion I respect have guessed the figure might be 75 or 80 percent, and I suspect this is close.

For those of us who live here year-round and benefit from such things as well-funded schools, there’s a powerful multiplier effect at work. For every thousand dollars we agree to tax ourselves for town services, we get three or four thousand dollars from seasonal property owners added on top. It’s like that public radio deal where a donor has volunteered to double your gift — except that in this case your gift is quadrupled, and the donor has no choice but to pony up.

Next week, when the school buses deploy across the Island and another academic year begins, I’ll be saying a little prayer of thanks for the seasonal homeowners whose investment in Martha’s Vineyard makes it possible for us to provide a quality of public education that’s the envy of school districts across the state, while still enjoying some of the lowest tax rates in Massachusetts. The traffic jams of summer may be a frustration for 75 or 80 days of the high season, but the millions of dollars in support for municipal services that we get from our seasonal taxpayers is a gift that never stops giving all year.