Adding a Bit of Common Sense to the School Budget Rhetoric

I’m a vocal supporter of the school budget. I’ve blogged about it many times. I’m also a bit of a numbers geek and a card carrying librarian, meaning I love me some research. And the other day, a question suddenly struck me. The school budget detractors keep claiming the school budget is decimating our communities. That people just can’t afford to live here anymore. At the last school budget meeting, it was claimed that the Yes voters were going to force people out of their homes. That the elderly on social security wouldn’t be able to afford their taxes anymore. When you drive into town right now, a series of roadside posters claim “It takes a school to bankrupt 10 villages.”

Their argument is clear: people in the district are being taxed through the nose, and it’s all the school budget’s fault.

To date, I’ve been accepting their argument at face value, countering with any number of reasons for why the school budget needs to be what it is. I’ve felt badly for the people who this is putting a crunch on, but I’ve also felt like compromises must be made. Lesser of two evils. Eggs and omelets. Insert your favorite justification idiom here.

But the question that struck me was, “Just how much is this budget really hurting people in the area?” Had I been too cold? Dismissed their claims too lightly? I wanted to actually find out what taxes are looking like. What they’ve done historically. And lucky me, I’m a librarian. Research is my thing.

First up: what has the school budget really done the past decade or so? I tried to nose around to find this information easily online, but in the end I revved up the ol’ microfilm machine and consulted the local newspaper. On June 10, 2005, voters overwhelmingly approved a budget of $21,884,104. The current budget up for a vote (tomorrow!) is $33,929,507, an increase of 12 million and change, or about 55% up over the last 12 years. Yikes! There might be something to this catastrophe claim, after all.

Why has the budget gone up that much? 55% in 12 years means it’s gone up around 3.5% a year on average. That seems pretty steep. But let’s not forget inflation. Money doesn’t buy what it used to, even 12 years ago. Checking out the inflation rates for the past 12 years and applying them to that initial $21.9 million budget in 2005, and we see that it equals $27.8 million in today’s dollars. I don’t think anyone can reasonably blame the school board for causing national inflation, so let’s let them off the hook for that. Still, even accounting for inflation, the budget is up $6.1 million in the last 12 years. $500,000/year! Almost 28%. Crunching the numbers, it’s a bit more than 2%/year increase.

Now, there are many different reasons the school budget has gone up that much in the past twelve years. Computers and technology are changing the classroom and the way we learn. The internet has become vital, and access to it (and all the hardware and software that entails) is required for people to be able to function in today’s society. Special education and the way we meet the needs of disadvantaged students has changed. Teacher wages have increased.

But let’s throw all that out the window. For the sake of argument, let’s assume all increases not caused by inflation were wasteful, frivolous increases. Our children had a good education in 2005. Why can’t they have a good education in 2017 for the exact amount of money? (The argument many on the No side have put forward, though they refuse to account for the price of inflation on a year to year basis.) The school board is bankrupting our citizens! Grab the pitchforks! Somebody get some tar and a few chickens.

Wait. Maybe we should check some more numbers first.

I wanted to see what sort of an impact local taxes have had on individuals over the same period of time. Luckily, we have websites with that sort of data these days. Over at Maine’s government page, we can see that the mill rate for Franklin County has gone up from 11.49 in 2005 to 19.44 in 2015. They haven’t released data for 2016 and 2017 yet. However, we can check local towns for that. In 2005, Farmington’s mill rate was 14.03. According to the Morning Sentinel, it was 19.28 for 2017. What does that translate to in terms of actual money? Someone with a home assessed at $150,000 would have paid $2,104.50 in 2005. Today, they’d pay $2,892.

Assume for a moment that my current mill rate was off. That the Morning Sentinel wasn’t reporting things quite on. Let’s say the mill rate increased at the same rate it had from 2005-2015 (about 3.3%/year). In that case, 2017’s number would be 20.74. The same homeowner would be paying $3,111. That’s $1,000 more than they paid in 2005. $1,000 more! Every month! The humanity! Those money grubbing school board voting . . .

Hold on. That’s not $1,000 more each month. That’s $1,000 more each year. Spread out over 12 years. That means it’s gone up $83 more each year. An $83 increase in a year means people pay a bit less than $7 each month. And remember, this is blaming 100% of that increase on the school budget, something which just isn’t accurate. Some of it’s from inflation. Some of it’s from rising costs for other town functions like the police or the library.

But what about the elderly living solely off Social Security? In 2006, Social Security paid $1,044 on average each month. In 2015, it paid $1,332. $288 more per month, increased over 9 years. That’s 27.6% more. About 3% more each year. Granted, that’s 0.3% less than the school budget has gone up, but . . . I’m still not seeing it. (Again, this is on average. Some years, that benefit would have gone up more. Some years, less. But the same is true for school budget increases.)

Looking at all the property taxes people pay in Farmington (using it as a sample to represent the whole), property owners paid $2,170 in 2016 on average. So in the catastrophic 3.5% increase that the No side keeps holding up as the End of Times for the poor people of this fine school district, that would equate to $76 more paid in a year. $6.33 each month.

That’s what this is all about. All the sound and fury ends up signifying $6.33/month. Not even that: this year, taxes aren’t going up on average (not from the school budget increase, at least.) So all the doom and gloom signs you see plastered across the roads? It’s just words. Just rhetoric. Just people who don’t feel like paying more money in taxes. They’ve picked the school budget as their target. They’re pinning countless evils on it.

Because they don’t want to pay $6.33 more each month.

Am I simplifying things some? Sure. (So are they.) I’m sure there are individual cases where people’s taxes shot up more. I know some of that will be due to property values being reassessed. (Note: not the school board’s fault.) There will be plenty of special cases that could be used to try and make this seem worse than it is. But going just from the numbers?

The argument doesn’t hold more water than a thimble.

I’m voting to approve the school budget tomorrow, and I encourage you all to do the same. And the next time someone makes a catastrophic claim at a school budget meeting, I’m going to ask to see the data to back it up. The school board provides volumes of data to justify its expenses. I’d like to see the same coming from people who argue against it. I’ve tried to point to sources in this article. I’m open to criticism, but I want sources to back that criticism up. No anecdotal evidence, please. I don’t see it as being relevant to the discussion.

8 thoughts on “Adding a Bit of Common Sense to the School Budget Rhetoric”

  1. Hi Bryce,

    Two big jumps on the road to this years budget, from 12 years ago were made when we finished the Mallet Schoo building project, and the Mt Blue Campus Project. Between these two capital projects, we increased the expenditures by more than $5,000,000 per year to repay bonds. (Most of these bond payments are reimbursed by the state, however, the budget still goes up due to the bond amounts) The actual cost may be more than $5,000,000 per year for these two buildings.

  2. Right. Any way you slice it, when I looked at these figures, I could only see a school board being very cautious and even-tempered with its budget. I expect increases. It’s part of doing business. The fact that our district has been able to accomplish what it has with the limitations it’s set for itself is remarkable and praiseworthy.

  3. I agree..our district has always been conservative…relatively small increases each year, except for when the building projects hit, and to add necessary support to some programs….

  4. Charlotte bogue.

    You are mistaken on one point. It is virtually impossible to get a definitive answer to any money question at a board meeting and I have attended at least 10 in the past year

  5. Charlotte, which money questions do you have, specifically? I have yet to have a question that I haven’t had satisfactorily answered. Let me know, and I’ll see what I can find out.

  6. Love this, thank you so much for doing what I do not have the skills/time to do! Everyone needs to read this!

  7. FellowLibrarian

    Thank you for this well-spoken breakdown of what is actually going on. It makes me so sad to see this town bickering over what amounts to mere dollars, and blaming the schools for the financial desperation so many people are living in now.

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