Correcting Hollis Brookline COOP apportionment misconceptions

To the Editor:

I am Chairman of the Hollis Budget Committee and am writing to urge voters in both Brookline and Hollis to attend the January 12, 2015 COOP Special District Meeting and reject the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District apportionment formula recommended by the COOP School Board. Instead, I ask voters to support an amended formula that would apportion costs based 100 percent on average daily membership (ADM) for non-bonded costs and 100 percent equalized value (EV) for bonded debt.

A change to 100ADM/100EV would benefit Brookline voters by recognizing that the COOP buildings are in Hollis and are of greater utility to Hollis residents. At the same time, Hollis voters would realize value by increasing their investment in capital assets that reside in their town. Finally, I believe the amended formula offers a compromise; currently, there is precious little cooperation in our Cooperative.

100ADM/100EV would provide a significant tax rate reduction to Brookline. Had this formula been approved this past spring the COOP portion of Brookline’s 2014 local education tax would have dropped approximately $.61, or 5 percent. Hollis’ comparable rate would have increased $.26 or 4 percent. Brookline’s cost of bonded debt would decrease almost 40 percent. That equates to a reduction of $1.7 million of Brookline’s current debt obligation, and a reduction of $250 thousand of Brookline payments for every $1 million of future COOP bonded debt principal.

Why reject the School Board’s formula? It is overly complicated while delivering little incremental value compared to 100ADM/100EV. More important, it distorts what is actually driving tax trends in our towns.

Apportionment isn’t broken

Much public and apportionment committee input relates to the original apportionment formula of 50ADM/50EV. The problem with referencing the original arrangement is it does not reflect the fundamental changes to education funding that have occurred in New Hampshire in the 25 years since the inception of the COOP.When the COOP was formed there was neither State Adequacy Aid nor Retained Education Tax. With the exception of relatively small State and Federal revenues, local schools were funded completely by local property taxes. This began to change almost immediately after the COOP was formed. In response to lawsuits and State Supreme Court rulings, statewide education taxes and adequacy grants first appeared in 1999. Various changes and modifications occurred until the current structure was established in 2007. The intent of these court rulings and legislation was to ease the burden of education funding on towns with smaller tax bases. Towns like Brookline.

The result of these changes to New Hampshire education funding is that even with the current 100 percent ADM formula Hollis pays significantly more into the COOP. In the current fiscal year, the town of Hollis will pay 36 percent more COOP taxes while having only 12 percent more students. Translated to the student level, Hollis will pay $2,100 more for each of its students than Brookline.

If we could rollback to the original environment, meaning no state aid and the original apportionment formula, Brookline’s FY15 taxes would be 6 percent higher. At the inception of the COOP Hollis paid 7 percent more property tax per student than Brookline. In FY15, it is estimated that Hollis will pay 18 percent more property tax per student than Brookline, more than two and a half times the original differential. Brookline is actually in an improved position relative to its tax burden at the inception of the COOP.  New Hampshire state aid, added after the COOP was established, more than compensates Brookline for the shift in apportionment to 100 percent ADM and their lower tax base. Continued reference to the “good old days” is misleading and irrelevant.

The COOP isn’t solely responsible for Brookline’s increasing taxes

The COOP does not dominate Brookline’s education tax burden. In FY15, the COOP will consume 52 percent of Brookline’s local education taxes, the Brookline School District 48 percent.

Combining all education taxes, approximately 80 cents of every Brookline tax dollar goes to pay for education. In Hollis, only 68 cents of each tax dollar goes to education. Brookline pays a substantially higher portion of their taxes toward education, but in virtually equal measures to the BSD and the COOP.

It is not just education driving up Brookline taxes. Since 2006, Brookline town spending, as measured by total appropriations, has increased 29 percent; over the same period Hollis town spending increased only 17 percent. Brookline voters have approved $3.5 million in town and BSD bonded debt (principle and interest) since the last time Hollis voters approved any new debt. Given the difference in tax bases, that $3.5 million of new debt would be equivalent to $8.3 million in Hollis. The COOP didn’t drive this spending.

If it isn’t the COOP, what is driving Brookline’s taxes up?

Simply put, growth is driving Brookline’s taxes up. In the 25 years since the inception of the COOP, Brookline’s population has grown 108 percent, the third highest population growth rate among New Hampshire’s 234 municipalities. This, in itself, is remarkable and has clearly put upward pressure on taxes.

However, it is not just the absolute population growth in Brookline, but also the type of growth. Not only has Brookline experienced explosive growth, but also that growth has been disproportionately made up of families with children. The number of Grade 1-12 children in Brookline grew 161 percent, a rate 49 percent greater than overall population growth. Over the life of the COOP the number of school-age children per Brookline household has increased 28 percent. These trends have created more upward pressure on education taxes.

The third aspect of the growth problem is the relatively slower growth in Hollis. COOP costs that are apportioned based upon the number of students (ADM) are distributed based upon the relative number of students from each town. While Brookline population grew 108 percent, Hollis grew only 35 percent. While Grade 1-12 enrollment in Brookline increased 161 percent,

Hollis grew only 34 percent. While students per household increased 28 percent in Brookline, Hollis saw a 5 percent decrease. There are now 33 percent more students per Brookline household than in Hollis; when the COOP started Hollis had 2 percent more.

A fourth trend associated with Brookline’s growth is the influx of affluent residents to Brookline. The most recent U.S. Census data shows that median household income in Brookline has surpassed Hollis. By this measure Brookline is the wealthier town. Hollis has a higher poverty rate than Brookline. Hollis has more senior citizens which likely means more citizens constrained by fixed incomes. Hollis may have been the wealthier town 25 years ago, but that is no longer true.

These trends have converged creating the property tax issues seen in Brookline. To attribute the Brookline tax issues to the COOP is simply wrong.

Fairness is in the eye of the beholder

The most common arguments over the past year have been appeals to fairness. Since fairness is such a subjective and individually held value, it fails as a guide for determining our path forward. I believe voters are owed a rationale that is based on some justification other than fairness. The trends I have identified were largely ignored in the apportionment committee process. Why? Can anyone explain why Brookline growth is not relevant to how much Brookline pays for the COOP?

Apportionment agitators have created a divisive myth in which Hollis has bullied Brookline, forcing them to pay more than their share for the COOP. Where is the data that support the myth? Can anyone put a number on the “damages”? How much more should Hollis pay in reparations? The agitators have studiously averted their eyes from the real root cause – Brookline growth. Who among the agitators calling for Hollis to pay more would advocate the same position if they lived in Hollis?

In closing, I again urge all COOP voters to ignore the rhetoric, evaluate the facts, and support 100 percent average daily membership (ADM) for non-bonded costs and 100 percent equalized value (EV) for bonded debt on January 12, 2015. Perhaps then we can move past inter-town bickering, end the dysfunction, and return our focus to educational excellence.

Tom Gehan