SAD 44 attorney on school taxation fairness

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  • Following is the text of an explanation from SAD 44 Attorney Richard Spencer on tax assessment for school districts. It was originally presented at Monday’s SAD 44 School Board meeting, and has been revised since then to include a more specific focus on SAD 44, according to Supt. Dave Murphy. Spencer also testified April 15 at the Legislative hearing in Augusta on LD 1082, which seeks to incorporate student population into the SAD 44 and SAD 6 local cost-sharing formulas.

    The taxes that support SAD 44 are regional taxes that are being fairly assessed

            The reason that most rural Maine towns are members of SADs or RSUs is because they do not have enough students or enough taxable property to operate their own municipal school systems; and the educational literature strongly supports the idea that regional school systems are able to offer greater educational opportunities than would be possible in smaller municipal school systems.  The taxes that are levied to support Maine school administrative districts (“SADs”) and Maine Regional School Units (“RSUs”) are regional taxes that are assessed against all of the taxable property located in the SAD or RSU.  As a matter of administrative convenience, Maine statutes provide for these SAD or RSU taxes to be collected by the towns located within the SAD or RSU because the towns already have the procedures and personnel in place for the collection of local municipal taxes.

Although the taxes that support Maine’s SADs and RSUs are collected by the member towns, the Maine statutes and courts have made it clear that taxes levied by school districts and RSUs are district or regional taxes as distinguished from municipal taxes.  20-A MRS §§1310(2) and 1489(2) both provide that constables and tax collectors have the authority and powers to collect SAD and RSU taxes, respectively, “as is vested in them by law to collect state, county, and municipal taxes.”  Similar language was used by the Maine Law Court more than 100 years ago in Smyth v. Titcomb, 31 Me. 272, 280 when the court cited a statute providing that following assessment of a local school district tax, the tax collector “had the same authority to enforce the collection and payment, as in the case of town taxes.”

When SAD and RSU taxes are understood to be district or regional taxes, rather than town taxes, it becomes clear why it is that under SAD 44’s cost sharing formula all of the taxable property in the district is assessed in the same manner.  The basic premise is that when SAD 44 assesses school taxes to raise additional local funds, a property located in one part of the district should be taxed at the same tax rate as a property located in another part of the district.  The taxpayers of Newry, Bethel, Andover and Woodstock are all located in SAD 44.  Since they all derive benefit from the same regional school system, it makes sense that a property located in one part of SAD 44 should bear the same tax burden as a similarly valued property in another part of SAD 44.  For that reason, a ski condo in Newry valued at $100,000 bears the same tax burden as a house in Bethel, also valued at $100,000, in order to support SAD 44’s regional education program.

Because regional school taxes are collected by the towns, however, it is easy to think of them as town taxes, which they are not.  In reality, it is not the town that is paying the taxes to support SAD 44, it is the individual taxpayers.  The individual taxpayers in a high valuation town with a small number of students are not paying too much toward the regional school system and they are not being treated unfairly.  On the contrary, they are paying the same amount on the value of their property as the other taxpayers whose property is located in other parts of the district.  They also enjoy the same benefits from the regional school system as all of the other taxpayers in the district.  If they have children of school age, they can send their children to the district’s schools on a tuition free basis; and if they don’t have school age children, they still receive the other benefits that accrue to everyone from the general diffusion of education – an educated population, a stronger economy, and a functioning democracy.

The next time that you hear that a town is paying too much to an SAD or RSU, or that the town is not getting its money’s worth because it only has a few students, Stop and Think.  It’s not the town’s money and it’s not the town that is paying for the regional education system.  It is the individual taxpayers in the SAD or RSU.  The towns are just conduits for collecting the regional taxes.  When SAD 44 raises additional local funds, all of the taxpayers in the region are taxed at the same rate as all of the other taxpayers in the region; and they are also getting the same benefits as all of the other taxpayers in the region.  If you think about it that way, there is nothing unfair about the current arrangement.  On the contrary, common sense requires that all of the taxpayers in the region be taxed in the same manner to support a regional school system that benefits all of them.

The present system is not only fair to the taxpayers, it also leads to greater educational opportunities for all of the students who live in SAD 44’s member towns.

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