To the Editor:
The primary source of Oak Bluffs’ financial instability is the annual overbilling of the town for its share of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School budget.
In the rest of America, like here, most school districts rely on local property taxes. And just like here, in the rest of America school districts can cross town boundaries and include multiple towns. However, in the rest of America, the school tax rate is the same for everyone who owns property in the school district. But not here, not on Martha’s Vineyard.
Although we have a single, unified high school district, we tax property owners as if we had six separate high schools in each of the six towns. If you live in Edgartown, Chilmark or Aquinnah your tax rate for high school is markedly less than if you live in Oak Bluffs, Tisbury or West Tisbury. The rationale for this is embedded in the regional agreement signed by the six Island towns.
That document instituted a user fee system for apportioning the annual cost of running the high school rather than distributing the cost of the high school equally among all taxpayers (as is done everywhere else in America). Thus, the affordable towns, which attract most of our young families, bear a heavier tax burden than the unaffordable towns with economically prohibitive zoning laws.
To illuminate the illogic of this agreement, consider the Oak Bluffs Elementary School. What if Oak Bluffs neighborhoods with higher concentrations of children had higher tax rates than those with less kids. Would that make sense? No.
It’s a ludicrous local tax policy, yet it is precisely how we fund the high school. It is also the antithesis of the concept of public schools in America. This unique, egalitarian American idea, free public schools for all, is a community-wide investment in the future, with all property in the community taxed equally to fund the schools.
If we were to fund the high school with a uniform tax rate, as it is done throughout the USA, the tax rate per $1,000 of property for fiscal 2015 would be 0.7966. The current actual tax rates for the high school by town are: Oak Bluffs 1.5758, Tisbury 1.2445, West Tisbury 0.9879, Edgartown $0.5597, Aquinnah 0.2763, Chilmark 0.2456.
The Oak Bluffs tax rate is 282 percent more than Edgartown, 570 percent more than Aquinnah, and a whopping 642 percent more than Chilmark. Tisbury’s is 222 percent more than Edgartown, 450 percent more than Aquinnah, and 507 percent more than Chilmark. West Tisbury’s is 177 percent more than Edgartown, 358 percent more than Aquinnah, and 402 percent more than Chilmark.
In dollars, Oak Bluffs is being overcharged by more than $2.1 million for the 2015 high school budget.
And, Oak Bluffs has been overbilled every year for nearly 40 years. It is a staggering amount. In today’s dollars, the cumulative is more than $50 million.
Imagine what Oak Bluffs could have done with that money. Our elementary school wouldn’t rely on teachers to spend their own money for supplies. New town hall? New fire station? No problem. Our taxes would be lower. Our elderly citizens would be at less risk of losing their homes from high taxes.
Okay, so there is glaring inequality, but what to do about it?
Oak Bluffs needs strong political leaders willing to play hardball. They need to enlist Tisbury and West Tisbury to pressure Edgartown, Aquinnah, and Chilmark into paying their fair share. If paying the full uniform rate for the high school is too burdensome for their year-round residents, then Edgartown, Aquinnah, and Chilmark should legislate split rates.
Before the cacophonous howling erupts about how undemocratic and un-American it would be to have a split tax rate and how I am advocating class warfare, everyone should be reminded that Aquinnah, Edgartown, and Chilmark, while coddling their wealthy summer residents for decades, have silently tolerated a split rate for the high school which has economically punished their fellow year-rounders in Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury.
When it comes to the high school, we are one community, and we have been one community for a long time. The school district for the high school encompasses the entire Island. It’s time for the Island tax policy to reflect that reality.