OPINION: The Sept. 10 property tax vote – an independent perspective
By Michael Sheehy, contributed
On September 10th, Madison City will hold a special election asking city residents to authorize a 12 mill ad valorem tax increase for public education purposes. In plain English, we will vote to increase property taxes by $1.20 for each $100 of assessed value, in order to fund new school construction and operations.
It is helpful to understand that the assessed value of our homes is only 10% of their actual value (as determined by the county tax assessor). So for a $100,000 home, the 12 mill property tax increase would be $120 per year. A home value of $250,000 would have a tax increase of $300 per year.
City, school, and area business leaders are strongly supporting the tax proposal. For day-to-day matters, that is enough for me. But on an issue as important as this tax proposal for our schools, I want to personally understand the impacts and independently decide.
Over the past year, I have fact-checked the calculations and conclusions of the city’s joint Growth Impact Committee and other experts. I write here to share a few of my own conclusions as a simple resident and “neutral” party, whose priority interests, perhaps like yours, are accountable governance and the continued wellbeing of our schools and city.
- Our schools are at imminent risk.
The pace of student growth has already exceeded the “worst case” scenarios presented by the Growth Impact Committee. We have eleven schools (two high schools, two middle schools, and seven elementary schools). As of April this year, three of the schools were already over manageable capacity, and five others were at marginal levels. We grew over 600 students last year (the size of an elementary school) and have already gained over 250 students since May. By 2021, at least seven schools will exceed manageable capacity with two more schools borderline.
Madison City student-teacher ratios already exceed both the state and national averages; we’re ranked 124th of 138 districts in Alabama. Our schools have counselors conducting sessions from closets, and we have elementary classes with nearly 30 students. Some of our school buses exceed passenger safety thresholds. With the explosive rate we’re growing, we’re simply out of space.
Our school district is ranked first in the Huntsville area, first in Madison County, second in Alabama, and 46th of 10,782 districts in the country. Therefore, many believe it is not possible for our schools to fail. I see otherwise.
What happens when we are forced to close gyms, eliminate sports, theater, band, arts, and clubs in order to create space for academic instruction? What happens with young children and families when pre-kindergarten is terminated in order to support primary education. What happens when children must attend school by shifts and have no positive developmental activities after (or before) school to keep their “idle minds” supportively engaged.
Without additional schools, it is inevitable that we will transition from excellence to survival mode.
- There is no financial fat to trim.
Some have suggested that we can simply be more efficient and shave costs somewhere to pay for the new schools. While there is always room to look for cost and performance efficiencies, and we must demand that of our city and school leadership, we would need to cut 80% of the district’s entire annual budget to fund the growth requirements. That’s a pretty close shave.
Madison City Schools operational and administrative expenses are below both state and national averages. We remain below the state average in per-pupil spending, ranking 87th out of the 138 public systems. Yet we have nationally ranked academic performance. We owe a tremendous debt to our school leadership, staff, and devoted teachers, who stretch every dollar to its fullest and who give their very best to nurture every single child to success.
Clearly our school district has directed our funds in a manner that has gotten us the biggest bang for the buck. This is exactly how our money should work for us. And there is no financial fluff to fund the new schools.
- Our school health is vital to our city’s health.
Madison has been rated repeatedly as one of the best places to live and raise families in the United States, and the schools are arguably the heartbeat of our city. When our children were toddlers, I remember very clearly my wife asking me, “What part about ‘we’re moving to Madison’ do you not understand”.
Realtors report that people will pay any price to get into a Madison home, specifically for the schools. The last time that our schools exceeded capacity, just before the opening of our second high school, the housing market stalled; our home values dipped. Once James Clemens opened, the market and our broader economy promptly surged again.
Madison City offers a great quality of life with a safe, clean, friendly setting and close access to jobs, transportation, health care, and other needs. But more than any other factor, it is the quality of our schools that drives growth and prosperity.
Business and community leaders are behind this tax proposal, because they recognize that successful schools increase our prosperity not only in real estate but across the full commercial and quality of life spectrum. There are many other tremendous appeals, but schools are clearly central to the identity and economic success of our city.
- Our property taxes will still be low.
Nobody wants higher taxes, and frankly this proposal is sizeable with an increase of around 21% and averaging a projected $30 per household monthly. That is because we should have raised our taxes years ago. But even with the increase, we’ll continue to enjoy some of the lowest tax rates in the nation.
Alabama has the second lowest effective property tax in the United States and the lowest per capita property taxes with, depending on sources, only a quarter to one-third the national average.
Our state requires communities to fund a portion of the schools based upon local property values. AL.com reports that local dollars average 21% of a district’s budget in the state, with cities like Mountain Brook contributing as much as 54%.
Taxes for public services like emergency responders and schools are not simply a responsibility; they represent a shared sense of commitment to our community success, advantageous to us individually as well as collectively.
- Time is of the essence.
It has taken at least seven years to get this on the table, and we have no remaining margin of time. Construction contracting for new elementary and middle schools must commence immediately following our vote.
This tax will go directly and only to our schools. While I sometimes disagree with the proposals and directions of our city leadership, there is no opening for disagreement when it comes to the care of our youth and the economic viability of our city.
This decision does not belong to city, school, and area business leaders. It belongs to us as residents and taxpayers. Supporting this property tax increase for schools is long overdue, and it is sensible. It is a “win” in every way.
Voting will be from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. on September 10th.
Where to vote: https://www.madisonal.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1034
You can find your home’s assessed value at:
http://www.deltacomputersystems.com/AL/AL47/plinkquerya.html (for Madison County residents)
http://limestonerevenue.net/caportal_mainpage.aspx?IsHTTPS=0&IFrameURL=CA_PropertyTaxSearch.aspx (for Limestone County residents)
Also see these sites:
https://www.madisoncity.k12.al.us/district (click school tax FAQs link)
Mike Sheehy is a Madison resident, middle school parent, former homeowners’ association president, and professional strategic planner who has for the past several years been analyzing impacts and engaging community leaders on matters connected with this tax decision, from the rezoning of school zones to city growth management.
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in a letter to the editor are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of The Madison Record.