Taxes and tuition
If your Island town wanted to fund its elementary school the way the Vineyard funds its regional high school, you'd do it like this:
First, sit down with a map and divide your town into half a dozen neighborhoods. One might be the village harborfront, where homes sell in the $10 million to $20 million range. Another might be a residential area, perhaps one of those inland districts where land was worthless a century ago but today is packed with modest homes built for working families.
Now, hold an annual census to find out where each elementary student lives. Finally, tax property at different rates in each of the neighborhoods you've drawn up, billing each area for the students it contributes to your school.
The result? The priciest real estate in your Vineyard town would be tapped scarcely at all for school funds, because in these elite neighborhoods of summer residents, few families with children can afford to live. Neighborhoods with families in them - families already struggling to make ends meet - would be clobbered.
We don't do it this way. In fact, the idea is repellent. Because our tradition of taxing real estate to pay for education is based on the sense that educating our children is the whole community's responsibility.
Now consider the case of the regional high school and the 1989 agreement that provides for its funding. The high school's community, a place called Martha's Vineyard, is divided into six areas known as towns, each paying tuition for the students it sends to the regional school.
In Chilmark, this arrangement is just peachy. At tax time, Chilmark can tap into more than 16 percent of the Island's real estate wealth - and it doesn't need to raise much, because Chilmark pays tuition for just three percent of the high school's students. Edgartown does almost as well under the current high school agreement, with 36 percent of the Island's total property value but just 25 percent of the high school's students.
Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, meanwhile, feel the pinch. With less than 16 percent of the Island's property wealth, Oak Bluffs - because of its enrollment - carries nearly 27 percent of the high school's costs. And with its 15 percent of the Island's taxable property, Tisbury pays the high school a 23-percent share.
The reality here is that the Vineyard's taxable wealth is distributed in one pattern, while the students of the high school are distributed in another. As a result, the high school's 1989 assessment formula hammers some towns at tax time and lets other towns off easy.
The contrasts are huge. In Chilmark, each $1,000 in assessed property is taxed, for the high school, at less than 13 cents. In Oak Bluffs, that tax is $1.07.
Oak Bluffs representatives have tried to raise this issue in meetings of the regional high school assessment committee, but without much luck. The committee's most recent meeting, on Jan. 14, was derailed by a discussion of far narrower issues surrounding the statutory formula imposed last year by the state.
Tisbury should be a natural ally in the Oak Bluffs effort to revisit our high school funding formula. But leaders of the two towns have been estranged since last spring, when Oak Bluffs voters nixed a deal to stick with the Vineyard's 1989 funding agreement, instead pocketing a one-time $435,000 windfall offered by the state. That decision cost Tisbury $234,000 - and it cost Oak Bluffs any goodwill it might have found in Tisbury.
Edgartown, perhaps in its perennial fear that any conversation about things regional will end with neighbor towns picking its pockets, is boycotting the regional high school assessment committee. And speaking for Chilmark, Warren Doty protested at last week's meeting that if all Vineyard real estate were taxed at one rate for our high school, his town would be paying more than $70,000 per pupil.
But no Island town funds its elementary school by imposing higher tax rates on neighborhoods where the families live, and lower rates where they don't. It's not about where the children are - the whole town supports its school.
The high school's "town," the community it serves, is the whole of Martha's Vineyard. Yet the Vineyard funds its high school not by sharing the burden equally, but by billing the towns according to where the children live.
It's easy to dismiss the Oak Bluffs campaign to raise this issue as a quixotic effort, doomed from the outset. And yet the question deserves consideration: Why should the Island's most family friendly towns suffer each year at tax time, while other towns watch their bills drop as working families are driven out?