Canaan Looks for Change to Mascoma Formula

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, January 06, 2017

Canaan — Officials in Canaan, where residents have seen their school tax rate almost double in the past six years, are trying to line up support for a change in how towns contribute financially to the Mascoma Valley Regional School District.

Many Canaan residents are struggling to pay their bills, according to town officials, and it’s becoming harder to convince people to move to town.

“(Residents) can’t even sell their properties because nobody wants to pay this tax rate for the school,” Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson said in an interview last week.

Officials in Canaan are now proposing a change in how the Mascoma district allocates taxes. A new formula would save Canaan residents money, town officials argue. But it also would shift costs to other towns and possibly create rifts between the district’s five communities.

Samson and the Canaan Selectboard will present two possible petition warrant articles during a forum for Mascoma Valley residents on Sunday evening. One would change the district’s tax allocation formula and the other would change how Mascoma School Board members are elected.

The dispute over Mascoma’s funding formula comes as the School Board has recommended a $27.5 million budget for the 2017-18 school year, a $1 million increase. The 3.7 percent increase does not include a separate warrant article for a new teachers contract that could add another $275,000 to next year’s spending, and a total of $500,000 more in the following two years.

Mascoma Valley residents also are starting to pay off the bond of the $21.5 million renovation project at Mascoma Valley High School. The district is expected to make another $1.3 million payment in the upcoming school year, which is part of the proposed budget.

Currently, each of the five towns pay taxes to the district based on how many students they send to Mascoma schools. Canaan sends 480 students to schools in the district, while Enfield sends 483, according to Samson, and Mascoma officials said the split was almost even.

In an effort to reduce its costs, Canaan is proposing a formula that also injects a town’s property value into the mix. Until the mid-1980s, Mascoma operated in a similar manner, using both a town’s value and enrollment to determine bills, Samson said. But the formula changed to include enrollment only around 1985.

“At first blush, that’s probably the fairest way of doing it if all towns have the same capacity to pay or roughly the same capacity to pay,” Samson said.

Town valuations run from a high of $522 million in Enfield to a low of $30 million in Orange, according to state calculations. Canaan has a valuation of about $330 million without utilities.

The local school tax rate this school year in Enfield is $15.20 per $1,000 of valuation, while in Canaan it is $20.65. That is almost double the $10.58 school tax rate in Canaan in 2010.

“Because the values are significantly different, it means that it’s easier to spend money if you have more money to spend,” Samson said.

If the Canaan proposal is approved by voters throughout the Mascoma district, the new formula would shift so that 20 percent of local school taxes would be based on each town’s overall valuation, and 80 percent of the formula would be based on enrollment.

If that formula applied to the current school budget, Enfield’s annual school taxes would increase by almost $600,000, while Canaan’s would decrease by almost $500,000, according to a handout from Samson. Grafton also would pay $60,000 less in taxes, while Orange would pay $31,000 less and Dorchester would see a $4,600 increase.

Those would in turn hit school tax rates, giving Canaan residents a $1.43 decrease per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value, according to Samson’s calculations. Enfield would see a $1.08 tax rate increase, while Orange’s would go down by about $1 and Grafton’s by 51 cents. Dorchester would see a small increase of 11 cents.

The Canaan Selectboard last month held two meetings, which were attended by officials from Grafton, Dorchester and Orange. None of those three towns has openly endorsed the plan yet, and Enfield did not send representatives to either of the meetings.

“We have been invited and we just made the decision not to attend because essentially we feel this is a school issue. This is a school budget issue,” Enfield Selectboard Chairman John Kluge said in an interview last week.

Some school officials are openly skeptical of the proposal, saying it could hamper the good will that currently exists between the towns.

“You have to ask yourself what’s going to happen in the future when one town has more children in school. Are we going to switch it back?” asked Bob Cusick, a Mascoma School Board member representing Enfield.

Over the years, the communities have worked together to form Friends of Mascoma, a group that aids school programs and runs a food pantry out of the new high school.

High school parent groups also work hand-in-hand to benefit the district, he said.

“We’re doing a lot of things right, do we really need this becoming a divisive issue between the towns?” Cusick said.

Mascoma Superintendent Patrick Andrew expressed a similar concern. Looking through old meeting minutes, he said arguments over the funding formula once divided the towns.

Although he would respect whatever route the voters choose to follow, he worried the formula change “pits towns against each other.”

If Canaan has a problem with the budget, there are more traditional ways to express those concerns, said School Board Chairwoman Cookie Hebert, who represents Dorchester.

Canaan and Enfield each hold two seats on the 7-member Mascoma board and an independent budget committee reviews budgets before they go to voters in March, Hebert said. The School Board also invited every town selectboard to individual meetings during the budget season.

“We have to work together. Not everyone is going to like what you have to say. Everyone is different,” Hebert said, adding both the Mascoma School Board and the Budget Committee work hard to be fair.

Canaan also is hoping to change the way the School Board is elected. In the second proposed petitioned warrant article, it proposes towns elect their own members instead of the system of at-large voting in place now.

Samson said the measure, which would have to be voted upon and approved across the district, would give towns more control over who represents them on the board, but also would change how much clout each vote gets.

Under the current Mascoma system, candidates fill slots from the individual towns but must win election across the entire district.

Under the new proposal, Mascoma School Board members would be voted upon by their respective towns only with Enfield and Canaan each getting two seats and the other towns one seat apiece.

Samson said the proposal would increase accountability to taxpayers in each town.

“It is not unusual for someone to be voted down by the voters of the town they represent but be voted for by the other four towns,” he said.

But Andrew, the superintendent, was skeptical of the measure, saying Canaan traditionally has more clout in school district votes.

“Canaan has forever had sway, or power or influence just by the mere fact they typically turn out several hundred more people than Enfield,” he said. “That one is very peculiar to me as to why that would interest a town manager.”

A public forum on Canaan’s proposals is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sunday at Canaan Hall, which is at the Canaan Fairgrounds-Speedway on Orange Road.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.