Mascoma Considers Funding Formula

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 02, 2017

West Canaan — A committee charged with studying how to best fund the Mascoma Valley Regional School District voted on Monday to recommend changes to the district’s existing formula, and few people are happy.

The compromise reached by seven of the committee’s eight members does too little to provide tax relief to the Mascoma Valley’s less affluent towns, some members said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, others said there is little reason to change the existing system, adding that minor changes are meant to appease those from neighboring towns.

“I think it was in the spirit of compromise because nobody got what they wanted,” said Wayne Morrison, a Canaan resident who serves on the committee as the town’s School Board representative.

Currently, each town makes payments to the school district based solely on enrollment numbers. For instance, if one of the district’s five member towns accounts for 25 percent of the school enrollment, it would contribute 25 percent of the overall budget.

The district has been operating that way since 1985 — that is until earlier this year, when the Canaan Selectboard suggested the formula be modified.

Citing an increasing tax rate, the Canaan board put forward a petition warrant article that called for 80 percent of Mascoma funding to be calculated from enrollment. The remaining 20 percent would have come from town valuations.

However, voters at the district’s deliberative session opted to change the article, deciding to instead create the committee that would report its findings to the School Board. That decision was later cemented with a 1,094-679 vote during Town Meeting in favor of the committee’s creation.

A group of five community members and three School Board members began meeting in May. After months of work, they voted on Monday to recommend two changes to the district’s funding formula, according to Superintendent Patrick Andrew.

First, the formula would calculate towns’ enrollment and valuations using three-year averages, providing a buffer to small communities, where a slight bump in student numbers traditionally has led to tax increases.

The committee also opted to split how each community’s portion of the school budget is calculated. Under the committee’s recommendation, 95 percent of future bills would be based on enrollment and the remaining 5 percent would come from a town’s equalized valuation.

Using the enrollment from the last school year, the change would amount to a slightly smaller bill for the towns of Canaan, Dorchester and Orange, according to Debra Ford, the district’s business administrator. Enfield and Grafton would see increases.

Under the recommendation, Canaan would have paid $6.85 million to the district for the 2016-17 school year, down from $6.97 million.

Enfield’s bill would increase to $8.09 million from $8.04 million, while Dorchester’s would drop to $354,780 from $371,019. Orange would see a decrease to $499,051 from $542,727, and Grafton’s yearly payment would increase to $2.08 million from $1.95 million, under Ford’s calculations.

The change primarily was designed to appease Enfield voters, who don’t want to see a large tax increase, and voters in Canaan, who have been asking for help with their rate, said Danielle Thompson, a committee School Board representative who lives in Enfield.

Whatever formula ultimately is settled upon would need to go up for a districtwide vote during Mascoma’s annual meeting, she said, adding that the group was tasked with placating a varied group of stakeholders.

“We really wanted to make sure that the proposal would be something that we thought could pass in our communities,” Thompson said. “To go through all of this work and come out with something we don’t think will be passed by voters would be an exercise in futility.”

Coming into the committee, Thompson said, her views aligned with many Enfield voters who believe the current funding system is fair. So, she said, she didn’t support efforts to make town valuations a larger share of the overall formula.

“I think that it’s not a huge shift to equalized value,” Thompson said of the final recommendation. “Enfield is going to be funding a higher portion of the school district budget; however, it’s not a drastic change.”

Others, including Canaan officials, were hoping the committee would offer a more drastic change.

“From Canaan’s view, it is not a good solution,” Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson said of the committee’s recommendation.

Using numbers from the state Department of Revenue Administration, Samson predicted Canaan likely will see a 12 percent increase in taxes for the coming school year, while Enfield will see a 13 percent increase.

Dorchester’s taxes will increase by 30 percent, Grafton will see a 20 percent increase and Orange’s taxes will rise 18 percent under the same figures, he said.

“We’re all in the same boat. We’re all going to see a big increase,” he said.

But if the committee’s recommendation was to take effect, Samson said, Canaan would face a 7 percent tax increase over the current year’s rate, and Enfield also would see a 7 percent increase.

Dorchester’s tax rate would go up by 29 percent, while Grafton and Orange each would face 16 percent increases, he said.

That’s a difference of roughly 66 cents per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value on Canaan’s tax rate, too little to make a significant difference to residents, he said.

“There really isn’t any savings to benefit the town of Canaan with a 95/5 split,” Samson said. “A relatively small reduction doesn’t help a whole lot.”

Several members of the committee also worried the group’s decision would amount to too little relief.

“It was distressing to me. I think the focus was so much on how this will affect taxes in ‘my town’ that there was very little thoughtful discussion on fairness, about educational philosophy (and) economic philosophy,” said Chuck Townsend, the committee’s vice chairman.

Townsend, who lives in Canaan, said he voted to support the recommendation out of fear that the group would instead offer no change to the funding formula. His ideal compromise would have been a split where 90 percent of funding is based on enrollment and 10 percent on valuation.

“I appreciate that voting to increase one’s own taxes is never going to be easy,” Townsend said of fellow committee members, adding he still would have been happier with a bolder move.

Catherine Mulholland, a committee member from Grafton, initially backed an 80/20 split, but also supported the compromise on Monday.

Enfield could afford to absorb additional taxes, she said, and it would reduce the hardship of its neighbors.

“I think we sold ourselves to the devil,” Mulholland said. “The 95/5 is the worst possible compromise. It will have next to zero effect for the taxpayers going forward.”

When the towns decided in 1985 to base the formula solely on enrollment, the school population was healthy and less of the burden fell on individual towns, she said. Now, Canaan and less affluent towns are facing the brunt of tax increases, Mulholland said.

But basing funding off of enrollment is a fair and easily explainable way to calculate funding, countered John Franz, a committee member who advocated for the funding change 32 years ago.

Every town is charged the same per-pupil cost (not counting state aid), which Franz said is a reasonable way to divvy up the bill.

“We gave a little Band-Aid to patch up some things in the community so one town can get a little relief,” said Franz, the sole committee member to vote against the recommendation. “I don’t think that’s the way to do it.”

He called the compromise reached on Monday “divisive” and said the district needs to “cut the pie equally” in its approach to funding.

“You don’t have to do something just because somebody became a squeaky wheel,” Franz said.

The committee will next review its recommendation at 6 p.m. on Monday at Mascoma Valley Regional High School.

If the committee approves the proposed funding formula, the recommendation will go before the full School Board, which could put it up to a districtwide vote during Mascoma’s annual meeting in March.

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