Are high school assessments fair?


To the Editor:

We will soon decide, in our separate towns, to adopt annual budgets, including the assessments for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, which have been allocated to the towns as follows:

Oak Bluffs: $4,664,813, 26.8%

Tisbury: $4,382,751, 25.3%

Edgartown: $4,354,588, 25.2%

West Tisbury: $2,825,973,16.1%

Chilmark: $825,586, 4.8%

Aquinnah: $315,393, 1.8%

These assessments will be paid for by property taxes in the towns, where the total real estate evaluations are roughly as follows:

Edgartown: $7,828,953,600, 40.1%

Chilmark: $3,126,956,840, 16%

Tisbury: $2,739,260,542, 14.1%

Oak Bluffs: $2,608,257,000, 13.4%

West Tisbury: $2,402,730,447, 12.3%

Aquinnah: $779,157,966, 4%

Islanders love their schools, and I predict that the high school assessments, along with appropriations for the elementary schools in the down-Island towns and the assessments to the UIRSD in the up-Island towns, will all pass without any substantive question.

But who can fail to notice the disparities these figures represent? We are funding our high school, arguably our most important regional obligation, by allocating the burden without regard for the ability to pay. Why should two towns with a combined 27 percent of the property wealth (Tisbury and Oak Bluffs) pay 52 percent of the costs of the high school? Why should a town with 16 percent of the wealth (Chilmark) pay less than 5 percent?

The formula used to determine these assessments, a state formula, is driven primarily by enrollment — enrollment by town. The formula works. Sort of. We are used to it. But as long as we accept it, we will bicker over cost allocations. We will drag our feet on things like affordable housing, wondering about the additional education costs a town will undertake by encouraging more families with kids to live within its borders. We will perpetuate unwieldy school organization.

When the members of the regional committee (Do you know who your representatives are, or how they got the job?) sit down to draw up future budgets, or plan a new high school and how to fund it, will they be able to look around the table and say, “We are all in this together?” Will students coming into the school from towns with lean budgets be as well prepared to succeed as those with richer programs?

Allocating school costs is a tough issue. Right now it doesn’t appear to be on anybody’s agenda.
It could be. We are, after all, an Island which recently supported Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and their message of a rigged economic system, where the gap between the nation’s rich and poor is getting more and more problematic. Meanwhile we are ignoring something closer to home. Looking afresh at how we pay for schools would be acting locally.

Peter Palches

Oak Bluffs