While there is no shortage of grumbling about the amount of money spent on public education at Mount Desert Island High School, there’s a big difference between being unhappy with the budget and actually doing something about it.
For a prime example, one need look no further than the recent turnout for the public meeting approving that school’s annual budget. This year, in a very short amount of time, just 22 people out of the more than 9,000 registered voters in the four MDI member towns approved a total budget of $10.5 million. That turnout rate is just .22 percent.
In some past years, the proceedings were delayed so that at least one resident from each of the four member towns could be found and brought to the meeting to vote, making the vote official.
Of those who did attend this year, 18 were educators, school board members or their relatives. While that may raise eyebrows, the fact remains that even though every legal resident of Mount Desert Island was eligible to participate, most stayed home. Were there actual widespread opposition to the school budget, only a few dozen voters could have changed the outcome.
Most past opposition has been based on a misleading statistic – widely divergent per-pupil costs for each member town. When looked at only through that squint, Mount Desert, which pays $41,800 per student, seems to be taking it on the chin. Bar Harbor, for example, only pays $14,554 per student.
But education funding is far too complicated to be measured only by a per-pupil formula. The student census varies each year. And modern education requirements fluctuate. State mandated items seem to be added each year, making an overly simple cost measure misleading.
When the funding for MDI High School was formulated, the founders wisely included a provision that takes into account property valuation, or the relative wealth of a community. It factors in “tax pressure,” or what percentage of a community’s taxes go to support education. While Mount Desert’s per-pupil cost is the highest in the district, its actual property tax rate, and by association the proportion of that tax rate that goes to education, is near the bottom. Having the tax burden of the high school equitably distributed ultimately is the fairest way to go.
The rate the school can charge for tuition students from nonmember towns, capped by the state, also receives frequent criticism. However, those tuition students – and the money they bring in – provide a critical mass, enhancing academic, athletic and artistic offerings for all.
The low turnout for MDI High’s annual budget meeting may raise eyebrows, but also can be viewed as a referendum of sorts on how things are going. The fact that so few people show up can be seen as an endorsement of the good job done by the administrators and school board members who put the budget together and oversee the use of public money. It also suggests that a majority of people on Mount Desert Island are proud of the educational opportunities offered at MDI High School. The citizenry apparently trusts their school board members to spend what it takes to continue offering top quality education to our youth.