Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: With school budget stories, financial context matters

I disagree with April 11th’s editorial suggesting that school budgets were voted down because they were presented to voters too late. Yes, it would be great if local boards moved their timetable up, and I hope they follow Angelo’s suggestion to the extent possible. But I feel the most crucial item causing so many school budgets to be down-voted was the so-called “20%” tax hike across the state.

Yes, I realize school budgets increased often minimally, even in the 1% or so range, but this analysis was only emphasized in the press after the vote. In the weeks prior to March 5th, all anyone could talk about, in the paper, at the Legislative Breakfasts I attended, and around the water cooler, was that property owners were going to find their tax rates increasing by nearly a fifth. And then when people went to the polls and cast their ballots, the only significant money item they could vote on was school budgets. So what else do you expect people to do??

I’d suggest the problem could have been better addressed. 1) For municipalities: ballots which present money items should always indicate the percentage change in the given item. Being asked to vote yes or no on a large, context-free number is an exercise in voter confusion. I can keep in my head easily the difference between two political candidates. Far more difficult is remembering if $35,603,118 is higher or lower and by what percentage than a similar number from a year ago, or even if it matches what I saw reported in last week’s paper. 2) Even more helpful would be a useful universal benchmark always being provided by the press, such as how much a given item is likely to cause an average taxpayer’s bill to change.

For example, say an average Addison County homeowner has a $300,000 home with an annual tax bill of $7,000. By how many dollars will the school budget itself affect that average tax bill? I see the Addy Indy sometimes providing this sort of useful and clear context. But more often they provide myriad financial and percentage reference points, which I find almost universally confusing. There seems to be an emphasis on providing every possible reference point, rather than a consistent and easily understood one. Examples include “$1.5910 per $100 of assessed property value. That figure is more than 2 cents lower than the $1.6182 officials originally projected,” “save only a few pennies on tax rates,” or “The MAUSD board last month adopted a $37,014,566 spending plan for fiscal year 2025. With the 5% cap offered under Act 127, the district’s homestead tax rate is expected to increase 7.5 cents, or 5%, from $1.4991 per $100 of assessed property value to $1.5741. Superintendent Patrick Reen told the board at its Jan. 23 meeting that without the cap, the district-wide tax rate would likely rise by nearly 17 cents, or 11.3%.” 

Whatever is the point of referring to pennies or 2 cents or 7.5 cents, or even $1.5741? (For one thing, you can’t save “pennies” on “rates.” You can only save percentage points on rates.) These tiny numbers don’t in any way reflect the real impact on taxpayers. They feel to me to be an archaic holdover to the way it’s always been done, but sticking to such practices only adds to my confusion. I urge the paper to stick with a consistent reference point throughout an article, ideally the percentage change, or the real total tax bill value on the “average” $300,000 home. 

Heck, make up a cute little Addy Indy House graphic/icon that you can insert a couple numbers in and you’ve suddenly got a branding opportunity. You can use it in every article that discusses a potential property tax change, and the notable graphic will be easily remembered by readers. And when forced to refer to pennies, please also provide the corresponding real total taxpayer impact. (And also please stop falling back on the reminder that many homeowners pay based on their income rather than property value. That fact doesn’t change, and even obfuscates, the fact that tax rates still increase.)

Context matters. I might balk at an 11% school budget increase. But if I’m clearly informed that the 11% represents zero increase in services and is only due to inflation on existing costs, then I feel a lot better about it. And if that 11% is only a portion of my total tax bill, which will only go up a total of say 7%, then I feel even better still.

Finally, I’d love for the Addy Indy to do a real in-depth breakdown on the Common Level of Appraisal. Maybe it’s even more of a Vermont Digger or Seven Days type project. It’s constantly reported and commented on that it’s the evil CLA which causes tax rates to skyrocket, even when school budget administrators achieve 1% budget increases. It would be incredibly helpful to see some graphs and flowcharts clearly explaining how this is the case. Because I’ve been reading everything I can on the matter and I still don’t get it. 

With an informed public, we can start voting and encouraging our legislative representatives to fix the real problem, rather than being faced with proposed “20%” tax increases, and the confounding opportunity to vote on only school budgets that won’t appreciably change anything anyway.

Kris Diehl

Middlebury

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