Wednesday, November 4, 2009

School taxes

I actually voted again yesterday for the second time in two years (and the second time in 20 years as well). It helps that the polling place is on my usual walk to and from the university and never seems to have any lines.

The main ballot issue was a five-year property tax increase to fund all of the school districts in Washtenaw county. Because of Michigan's somewhat bizarre school equalization laws, individual districts cannot raise taxes to fund their government-run schools but groups of districts at the county level can do so. The taxes are proportional to property values but the funds are dispersed in proportion to the number of students, so the proposed increase involved a large ($5 million) cross-subsidy from Ann Arbor (where all the property values are) to the rural districts in the county (where relatively more of the students are).

As a home owner (in cooperation with PNC bank) I have mixed incentives. My taxes would have increased a lot - about $1500 per year. On the other hand, part of what sustains Ann Arbor property values is the perception that Ann Arbor has "good" government-run schools. I am certain that the peer effects in the A2 schools are good, given the average education levels of the parents. What the value-added might be of the teachers and staff is more of a mystery. Ann Arbor can have its pick of teachers, because it pays a lot and has good students (though I suspect that it also has bossy, interventionist parents, which works to some degree in the other direction) but whether it uses that market power for good is another question.

I can offer only this post from my colleague Sue Dynarski, who has kids in the A2PS, as evidence of how the district is run.

In any event, the property tax measure failed. It will be interesting to see how the district reacts. The cynical expectation is that it will cut some highly visible and highly popular programs and return again next year with a request for another tax increase. Alternatively, if the district is well run, they will extract some concessions from the teachers and cut some administrators - curriculum coordinators and such like - whose services will not much be missed, at least in the short term.

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