Base school funding on property values


To the Editor:

When Jim Malkin, chair of the Chilmark select board, proposed a new formula last week for funding repairs to the regional high school, he declared his opposition to a formula based on real estate valuations — arguing not that there’s anything remotely unfair about such an approach, but that it’s unpopular in Chilmark and Edgartown.

Mr. Malkin was quoted here as explaining that he opposes a formula based on real estate valuation because “I don’t think that would have any support with our voters or with the Edgartown voters.” First of all, this ignores the distinction between what is right and what is popular. Furthermore, in the case of at least one Edgartown voter — me — he’s wrong. I believe that funding public education with real estate taxes, based solely on property value and not on enrollment, is both the American way and the right way. 

Again and again in these pages, commenters ask, What’s wrong with basing fees to the high school on the numbers of students enrolled from each town? For a perspective on why this is so wrong, consider two neighborhoods in my own town: North Water Street and my street in Ocean Heights.

The summer mansions on North Water Street are assessed in the scores of millions, but send few students to our Edgartown School. Nevertheless, the owners of a modest — say, $10 million — property on North Water Street pay more than $30,000 each year in property taxes, some 40 percent of which goes to public education. All across Edgartown, the owners of astronomically valuable properties that send few or no children to our school are ponying up perhaps 80 percent of the money that funds our public education.

My house in Ocean Heights, meanwhile, has been home to two children who got the full ride, kindergarten through high school, in the Vineyard public schools. Our taxes contribute about $900 per year toward public education here — enough to reimburse Edgartown for the cost of educating our kids in about 700 years.

This is so because in Edgartown we have agreed — as have towns and cities all across America — that the education of our children is the responsibility of each school’s entire community. In Edgartown we meet that responsibility with a tax that’s based not on enrollment of kids from this home or this block or neighborhood, but on the total value of Edgartown’s real estate. It’s a bit more complicated up-Island because of its ri-town school district, but Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven fund their elementary schools in exactly the same way.

The regional high school, meanwhile, is not funded with a fair tax on all the real estate in the Island community it serves. Our current funding formula is heavily based, instead, on the annual census of each town’s enrollment. 

The assessed value of real estate on the Island totals a little more than $25 billion. Edgartown’s real estate value accounts for about 40 percent of that, and Oak Bluffs about 14 percent. If we funded our regional high school with a regional tax rate— exactly the way Island towns fund their own schools — Edgartown would be paying considerably more to the high school each year than Oak Bluffs does. In fairness, we should.

Here’s another way to think about the current inequity: Just imagine how one Island town could game the formula, imposing zoning so restrictive that it ends up an enclave for the wealthy, with scant housing that families might afford. Meanwhile, a neighboring town pursues more family-friendly policies and ends up with less taxable real estate but more children in the schools. (Feel free to swap the words “Chilmark” and “Oak Bluffs” into this mind experiment.)

The town with the restrictive zoning and the fewest kids is rewarded with a smaller contribution to the high school, and for its family-friendly approach, the other town is punished.

Despite its smaller real estate base, Oak Bluffs pays five times what Chilmark does to the regional high school each year. As a result, only one of the 351 incorporated towns in Massachusetts — Gosnold — has a lower property tax rate than Chilmark. That Chilmark’s voters and town leaders like this status quo is understandable, but that doesn’t make it right.

All across the United States, we pay for public education with property taxes that tap the full wealth of a school’s community. And the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s community is — inarguably! — the whole Island of Martha’s Vineyard.

In the end, only two questions face us regarding the formula for funding our regional high school: What is fair and right, and how do we get to what’s fair and right if we’re not doing it now? The answer to the first question is clear; it’s the second that our leaders should be discussing. Perhaps a period of five or 10 years could be negotiated that transitions us from the current formula to one based, as it should be, on real estate value.

Our high school, born 63 years ago, represents a historic step toward regionalism — a proud milestone on the road toward seeing the Island whole. But we still have far to go to fulfill the promise of the R word. To paraphrase Chesterton, regionalism is not an ideal which has been tried and found wanting. In too many instances, it’s been found difficult and left untried.

It’s time for Island leadership that puts doing the right thing ahead of doing the popular thing. It’s time we got started on the work of making the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School true to its name.


Nis Kildegaard