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School tax drop is a dual-edged sword

Taxpayers in the Medford School District will see the school portion of their property tax bill plummet as a result of making an early payoff of the district’s debt service.

After holding steady for the past few years at a tax rate of $8.33 per $1,000 of equalized value, the preliminary rate approved by electors at the annual meeting on August 24 is $6.24 per $1,000 of equalized value.

On the surface this would seem to be good news. No one enjoys paying property taxes and lower tax rates means more money in the pockets of area taxpayers.

Under the proposed rates, which will be finalized when state aid numbers based on student enrollment are announced in October, Medford School tax rate will be about 30% below that of the state average and significantly below the rates set by other area school districts.

As one citizen at the district’s annual meeting correctly noted, school districts are not in a competition when it comes to who has the highest tax rates. While this is true in some sense, in others, districts are in competition for both students and staff. While open enrollment has benefi tted the Medford Area Public School District over the years, the gold standard for running a sustainable school district is in the district’s ability to attract families to settle in the community. Many rural school districts are facing declining enrollments, which goes hand in hand with shrinking communities and exacerbating the workforce shortages facing the region. The amount of investment a community makes in its schools is a refl ection on the importance the community places on education.

In recent years, the school board has focused on stabilizing the tax rate. A stable tax rate avoids peaks and valleys and gives property owners the ability to budget in advance for their tax bills and prevents unwelcome surprises come December.

One of the major selling points of last spring’s failed referendum attempt was that by any realistic projection it would have kept the tax rate steady while making necessary longterm investment in school infrastructure needs. As it has developed since the implementation of revenue caps back in the 1990s, referendums have become the primary tool to address longterm infrastructure needs with annual budgets focused on immediate operational needs. For right or wrong, that is the way the system has developed over the past decades.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the referendum and as a result taxes will drop, but at the cost of delaying muchneeded improvements or having to rely on creative financing and the potential of future staff cuts to make band-aid fixes.

A reduction in property taxes is something virtually everyone can support. That said, it is important to remember that those dollars trimmed off tax bills come at the cost of continued investment in buildings, staff and services to students. There is an old adage that “You get what you pay for.” This is true in purchasing a home, buying a car or investing in the educational needs of future generations.