A looming issue
For fiscal 2007, the state will spend $3.506 billion in Chapter 70 state school aid. That is an increase of $217 million, about 6.6 percent more than the state provided in fiscal 2006, which began July 1. That increase is substantial, and it is welcome news to towns struggling to keep up with growing school budgets. But, the state legislature has also ordered changes in the way in which state aid is allocated to towns, in Chapter 70 distributions, and it has moved to begin implementing changes in the formula which decides how towns in a regional school district, such as the one in which all six Island town participate for the high school, and the other, in which the three up-Island towns participate for elementary and junior high instruction. Both of these changes will affect Vineyard taxpayers, as well as Island students. Both appear likely to shift the education funding burden from the less prosperous towns, based on the total value of each town's real estate tax base and the median incomes of its residents, to the more prosperous.
"The new formula," the DOE explains, "adopts the new 'aggregate wealth model' for determining required local contribution targets, with property values and personal income levels given equal weight. The formula sets a statewide target of 59 percent local funding and 41 percent state funding of the foundation budget. For individual communities, the target percentages will vary depending on the community's wealth. "
As the Department of Education describes the changes that are in store, "In particular, the new formula addresses the issue of 'taxpayer equity,' using updated municipal income and property data to ensure that communities of similar wealth are treated comparably. It also simplifies the calculation of state aid allotments and ensures that state aid will keep pace in districts with growing enrollments."
Because Vineyard school enrollments have not grown significantly and in some cases have declined, and because real estate values in all six Island towns have inflated enormously during the past decade and a half, and finally because household incomes here outpace those in other Massachusetts communities that have seen declines in manufacturing jobs and high unemployment, it is reasonable to think that the new formula which will control Chapter 70 state aid to education will not favor Island towns. And because inflated real estate values will play a greater role in the apportionment of costs among towns in regional school districts, there are likely to be dramatic shifts in assessments among the six towns in the high school region and the three in the up-Island region, which is already the scene of serious disagreements among the towns over which community pays how much.
The Martha's Vineyard Finance Association, a voluntary association of finance committees from all six towns, will sponsor a public forum at the Regional High School cafeteria, at 7 pm, Oct. 18, to consider the implications of the new regulations governing regional school districts.
"The changes are substantial and dramatic. We cannot overstate the importance of your attendance at this public forum," the finance association wrote in an announcement of the planned forum. "... When applied to current budgets, as calculated by the superintendent's office, this new formula demonstrates substantial changes in the cost allocations of the member towns ... [and] the process by which regional school district budgets are adopted would become more complicated, and it has the potential for pitting one member town against another every year."
This is a complicated discussion that deserves the thoughtful attention of all Island taxpayers, none of whom will escape the effects of these changes.