Proposed change in apportionment formula pits Hollis against Brookline

HOLLIS – Petition articles submitted by a Brookline resident to institute a tax cap and change the allocation formula for the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District seem to have created an “us versus them” tension between the towns.

Just prior to the filing deadline, Eric Pauer submitted the articles in an effort to alleviate the tax burden of Brookline residents. Pauer is a candidate for the three-year Brookline seat on the Cooperative School Board.

The warrants were reviewed by the Cooperative School Board at a public hearing Feb. 20. Of the members of the public who spoke, almost all were from Hollis. Because the meeting had been rescheduled due to a storm on the original date, Pauer participated via telephone.

Calculating apportionment

Article 15 proposes amending the Articles of Agreement to change the way each town’s percentage of expenses is calculated. In cooperative school districts, two factors are usually used to determine the apportionment of each town: average daily membership of the students of each district during the preceding fiscal year and Equalized Value, which ties the tax portion to property values.

In other words, under a 100 percent ADM agreement, each town would pay the same amount for each student, regardless of property values or how many students from that town attend school. At the other extreme, 100 percent EV would shift taxes to the wealthier community, regardless of number of students it sends.

When the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District was formed in 1991, the compromise reached set the apportionment ratio to half ADM and half EV, a proportion that has fluctuated over the years. The formula was changed several times, gradually increasing the proportion of ADM from 50 to 60 to 75 percent, to its current status of 100 percent ADM.

Current formula “unfair”

Pauer described the current apportionment as being unfair to Brookline, where property values are lower than in Hollis, and said that a 50/50 combination of EV and ADM is the most common formula for cooperative districts in the state. After presenting and explaining his petition, he faced a barrage of comments from the public questioning his methodology and reasoning.

“I have no problem looking at apportionment or changing the formulas,” said Hollis resident Maryanne Shanley, “but it is much too hasty to go with 50/50 just because that’s what we used to do. We need to go the bureaucratic way. It needs more study.”

Rebuttal by Tom Gehan

Tom Gehan introduced himself as chairman of the Hollis Budget Committee, but pointed out that he was present merely as a concerned citizen with no standing at this meeting. He then gave a thorough presentation rebutting Pauer’s assumption that the change would reduce the tax burden of Brookline taxpayers.

Gehan’s data claims that the change would not reduce taxes at all, it would just redistribute existing taxes and would force Hollis taxpayers to pay millions of dollars of costs associated with Brookline students. He also put forth alternate scenarios, including the potential for someone to amend the petition from the floor at town meeting, which could actually result in additional taxes
for Brookline.

Gehan addressed the issue of fairness and cited several examples, such as residents without children who pay education taxes, older residents whose children have graduated but they continue to pay for schools, and those who rent and send children to school but don’t pay any education taxes.

“Education costs are driven by services delivered, not by the value of your house,” Gehan said. “None of these questions are relevant; state law dictates that education appropriations be raised through property taxes.

“ADM ignores state adequacy grant, and 100 percent EV is not legal,” Gehan said. “This is absent of any actual analyses, and to be blunt, I don’t care what other towns do. This proposes a radical change at the last moment on the last day. If adopted, it will lock us in for five years. If we do nothing, we can revisit it, but this circumvents the process and puts both towns at risk.”

Gehan continued to criticize the petition, saying Pauer drew it up alone and had no participation from representatives from either town.

“It’s unfortunate that this was rashly put on the ballot,” he said. “It has created a Hollis versus Brookline mentality. I would like to see it tabled, so we can do a thoughtful process.”

Other residents expressed similar sentiments regarding the shift in taxes from Brookline to Hollis, and hastiness of the proposal, as well as questioning the reliability of projected enrollment data used by Pauer.

Change overdue?

The lone Brookline resident to speak in support of the petition was Forrest Milkowski, chairman of the Brookline School Board.

“The idea is long overdue,” he said. “I was here for all the changes that Eric has identified. A lot of times people voted based on their wallets and not on fairness. The majority is held by Hollis, and it results in a vote that favors Hollis. Putting together a committee is a mistake. Brookline is suffering dramatically from the 100 percent formula. If everybody from Brookline and Hollis shows up to vote, we lose every time. We need an open mind and an open wallet. It will cost the people of Hollis, but consider the burden that you have been placing on Brookline the past 10 years.”

Tax cap also proposed

The other petition article submitted to the cooperative district warrant by Pauer seeks to “implement a tax cap, whereby the Budget Committee shall not submit a recommended budget that increases the amount to be raised by local taxes, based on the prior fiscal year’s actual amount of local taxes raised, by more than 2.5 percent.”

“This will keep the budget at a reasonable level for taxpayers,” Pauer said. The petition requires a three-fifths majority ballot vote to pass.

Gehan spoke in opposition to the tax cap, pointing out that a future petition could be put forth anyway, stating that it was not subject to the tax cap. He also said that the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration does not monitor or enforce tax caps.

“Taking this action would only further complicate and confuse the voting process,” Gehan concluded. “I encourage you not to support it.”

Hollis resident Michael Askenaizer spoke in favor of the cap.

“It seems reasonable based on the expected population,” he said. “I think caps are important, and even though those who vote on it can vote otherwise, it shows intent. I think it is something very appropriate for the co-op.”

“I feel that our budget committees do a pretty good job keeping things in check,” Hollis resident Shanley said, “and struggle with how little they are able to raise the budget if they do. There are many requests teachers and staff don’t make because they feel they cannot raise it. I don’t think they need a cap.”

Darlene Mann, chair of the Hollis Brookline Cooperative Budget Committee, challenged Pauer’s data and methods, questioning why he used enrollment charts from 2012 when the 2013 figures are readily available. She also questioned his motivation for seeking only a cooperative tax cap.

“Why did you not pursue this tax cap for the Brookline School District or the town of Brookline?” she asked. “The co-op taxes affect only 36 percent of the tax rate. There’s 64 percent you’re not addressing.”

Pauer defended his position by saying that Brookline budgets were not going up at the same “unsustainable” rate as the cooperative budget.

Other petitions

Besides the tax cap and change to apportionment formula, Pauer is listed as the primary petitioner on three other warrants on the ballot: Article 12 would require a two-thirds super majority to change the cooperative articles of agreement; Article 13 would require the Budget Committee to list estimated tax impacts in future warrant articles; and Article 14 would reject Common Core and have the cooperative establish its own higher academic standards.

Vote on March 3

Residents can vote on these and other petitions at the annual meeting of the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School Board at 7 p.m. Monday, March 3, in the Hollis Brookline High School gymnasium.

Full text of the Cooperative District warrant can be found at www.sau41.org/COOP/annual-meeting/2014/2014-02-14-HB-Coop-Ann-Meeting-Warrant.pdf.