There’s a better way to fund our schools!

February 2020

When we moved to Sandwich 22 years ago, I wondered why the property tax rate was so high compared to neighboring towns.

Residential Property Tax Rate

(not including exclusions for residents where available)

Falmouth:       $8.56

Mashpee:        $8.92

Barnstable:    $9.37

Bourne:            $10.51

Plymouth:       $13.84.

Sandwich:       $14.32

Sandwich didn’t appear to be very different from its neighbors. But Sandwich taxes were almost double those of Mashpee, and Sandwich did not have a residential exemption like Mashpee. Did Sandwich have expenses its neighbors didn’t have to bear?

The “Cranky Yankee” pointed me in the right direction. Dick Bradley was his name, and he often berated town officials for what he saw as their profligacy and bad decisions on his cable access show (the “Cranky Yankee”). I asked him if the high Sandwich tax rate was due to incompetent governance, and he said ”No, it’s the schools…two thirds of the town budget goes to schools, and most of that comes from the property tax.”

What was different about the Sandwich schools that caused such a variation in the tax rate? Sandwich spends about the same amount of money per student as its neighbors.

It took many hours of research, but I finally figured it out. Sandwich has too many kids and not enough property value compared to its neighbors. For example, Mashpee has roughly 3,300 kids 18 and under, while Sandwich has 5,600. And Mashpee has a total assessed valuation of $5.6 billion compared to Sandwich’s $4.8 billion.

That means there is only $845,000 worth of property to be taxed for every resident under 18 in Sandwich, while Mashpee has almost twice that, $1.6 million per resident under 18.

Therefore, Sandwich has to have a tax rate much higher than Mashpee’s in order to raise the same amount of money per student. And the other towns are not much different. All have more than a million dollars in property for every resident under 18 – with the exception of Plymouth.

Plymouth has almost three times the population of Sandwich, almost three times the property value and two and half times as many residents under 18. But when you do the math, Plymouth has roughly $870,000 of property per resident under 18, very close to Sandwich, as is their tax rate.

Does it make sense to fund our schools this way? It’s as if every town had a different income tax rate. People in one town pay more because there are more kids in their town and less valuable property. Don’t we want more kids in our towns? And shouldn’t the burden of paying for our kids’ education be spread equally among all of us?

There are several ways to accomplish this. One is what California does. Forty percent of California’s revenue goes to local school districts. This spreads much the burden of funding over all cities and towns, but the towns retain control of their schools.

Here on Cape Cod we could experiment with county-wide funding. Take all the property in Barnstable county and apply a county-wide school tax as they do in Florida. Then distribute the money to each town based on the number of students in their schools. Chatham’s tax rate would go up. Sandwich’s would go down.

One way to do this might be to have the county pay all the teachers with its county-wide property tax. Each town would get its quota of teachers, and would hire and fire the individuals who taught, but the county would pay the single biggest item, by far, in the budget. Towns would still be in charge of their school buildings and system. The rest of the budget would come from town taxes and state Chapter 70 money.

This system would spread the costs but wouldn’t save money. If we created a full county-wide school district, we could significantly reduce administrative costs. But I don’t think Cape Cod, which has one town with five fire departments is ready for that.

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