Mascoma to Use Enrollment for Funding

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 08, 2017

West Canaan — An eight-member committee studying how best to fund the Mascoma Valley Regional School District reversed course on Monday, voting to withdraw a recommendation that garnered near-unanimous approval within the panel last week.

The committee voted, 6-2, during its Monday meeting to continue using only enrollment data when calculating how much each member town contributes to the school district budget.

That’s largely how funding has been determined for Mascoma since 1985. But the committee also said enrollment should be calculated over three years to protect small towns from tax hikes caused even by fluctuations in their student populations.

Any final decision on a new funding formula would have to be approved by voters at Town Meeting.

Committee members Jim Fenn, of Enfield; John Franz, of Dorchester; Scott Sanborn, of Orange; Cookie Hebert, of Dorchester; Wayne Morrison, of Canaan; and Danielle Thompson, of Enfield, voted in favor of the measure, while Chuck Townsend, of Canaan, and Catherine Mulholland, of Grafton, voted in opposition.

Monday’s vote reverses one from the committee last week that recommended 95 percent of funding be calculated using enrollment. The remaining 5 percent would have been based on a town’s overall property valuation.

That formula would have shifted some costs to Enfield and Grafton, but committee members saw it as a compromise that would appease Canaan. Representatives from that town have asked for as much as 20 percent of funding to come from town valuations as a way of easing their property tax burden.

Advocates argue that Enfield has a higher town valuation than its neighbors and should therefore pay more to support the school district budget.

“While members of the committee were willing to buy into compromise, it didn’t appear the district as a whole was willing to follow that lead,” said Sanborn, Orange’s representative on the committee.

Sanborn said he was willing to vote for the compromise last week, but it appeased few people. Those who were supportive of using enrollment figures only were angered by a potential tax increase, he said, while those hoping to include valuations said it didn’t go far enough.

“Basically, we did nothing but alienate both sides by going with that compromise,” he said.

Sanborn said he supports using only enrollment numbers because it’s a fair model of funding the district. It’s not the local model that’s broken, he said, but how the state funds education.

“The inequalities aren’t because of the way we apportion,” Sanborn said, adding he isn’t in favor of “bailing out” the state of its responsibilities to devote more money to education.

Of those who attended Monday’s meeting, only one was from Canaan, according to Mulholland, who represents Grafton on the committee.

The remaining residents in the audience were from Enfield, she said, and they one-by-one argued Canaan’s lower valuation is the result of a lack of zoning. There also was a consensus that the Legislature should act to better fund schools, Mulholland said.

“If we wait for the Legislature, we could wait for another 50 years,” said Mulholland, a former Democratic state representative who voted last week for the compromise formula.

She said that vote was “sharply criticized” by members of the community but she felt it was necessary to at least partially ease the tax burden Canaan residents face. Mulholland also proposed an 80-20 funding split on Monday that failed to garner much support.

“The idea at this point that there isn’t going to be friction between the towns is absolutely, completely unlikely,” Mulholland said on Tuesday.

But Enfield’s new town manager, Ryan Aylesworth, said he was “very heartened” by the committee’s decision. The Enfield Selectboard postponed its regularly scheduled Monday meeting to be able to attend the apportionment committee meeting.

Aylesworth said Selectboard members were disheartened by some characterizing Enfield as elitist or unsympathetic to neighboring towns. He said his town also has financially stretched households.

“We have families that struggle to pay their taxes just like anybody else’s residents,” Aylesworth said.

Every town currently pays the same per pupil cost before state aid, he said, making it a fair system. State adequacy aid and the free and reduced lunch programs also help Canaan taxpayers, Aylesworth said.

“It’s not like the economic health of a town isn’t already being taken into account,” he said.

Even with aid, Canaan was one of only nine towns statewide in 2016 with a local school tax rate above $20 per $1,000, according to data from the state Department of Revenue Administration.

At $20.65, the school tax rate amounts to a bill of $3,098 for a homeowner with a property assessed at $150,000.

The bill for a similarly valued home in Enfield would be $2,280 with a local school tax rate of $15.20.

Canaan officials have also argued in the past that the value of homes on Mascoma Lake account for much of the difference between the two town valuations.

“I can’t make another Mascoma Lake in Canaan,” Town Administrator Mike Samson said during an interview last week.

Samson declined on Tuesday to comment on the committee’s vote, saying he wasn’t able to attend and hadn’t seen draft minutes.

“The disparagement of the people of Canaan last night was very destructive,” said Townsend, a former Democratic state representative.

Townsend said the fairest way to apportion school district costs would be to create one grand list across the district and tax all properties as if there were no town lines.

“The alternative which was passed tries to drive the cost of education as near as possible to the families of children who are being educated,” Townsend said. “That is not a cooperative model and not a model I can support.”

Mascoma Superintendent Patrick Andrew said on Tuesday that the committee is expected to approve a draft report of its findings on Aug. 21. The Mascoma School Board then will begin discussing the recommendation in September, he said.

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