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Op-ed

Kirwan education plan will put financial pressure on so-called “wealthy” counties | COMMENTARY

While we all want Maryland schools to be among the best, if our residents cannot afford to live here, have we succeeded in our goal?

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, more commonly known as the Kirwan Commission, was tasked to reform our state’s education, estimate the cost of implementation, and determine what share is local responsibility and what share the state would pay. It should be noted that they were not tasked with finding out how to pay for either share. The $4 billion annual lift is heavy and burdensome, especially to the taxpayers in jurisdictions that are deemed wealthy, like Kent County.

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How does a jurisdiction become classified as wealthy? According to the “wealth formula,” wealth is calculated by adding a percentage of property taxes to a percentage of income tax, and dividing by the number of students in the public school system. Why does it matter? Because the results of this equation determine what percentage of the total per pupil cost is the county’s responsibility. The remainder falls to the state.

However, this equation is so oversimplified, and ignores numerous relevant variables, that it is an inaccurate and misleading way to rank our counties’ wealth. Kent County is ranked 3rd wealthiest, and while we have some beautiful waterfront estates, the median household income is 32% below the state median household income. To raise revenue to pay for the educational reform by fiscal year 2030, the county would have to raise the only tax that it is capable of raising: the property tax. In Kent County, property tax would have to be increased by 30%.

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Remember, this is only the local share of the reform. State taxes to pay for their share could also be enacted statewide. This would disproportionately affect our most vulnerable residents, those whose budgets are most fragile. And that is the majority of our county.

If a large family were to move into Kent County and all other variables were held constant, the number of pupils would increase which would make the “wealth” of the county decrease, according to the current formula. As our population ages, which is our demographic, we may have fewer students in the school system, but that does not mean that the other residents do not need intensive services.

The wealth formula ignores tax credits that the state has enabled jurisdictions to enact. The percentage of the county made up of people who have second homes and don’t live in the county full-time also affects the calculation. Although these property owners do not have children in our schools, they still expect county-provided services such as road maintenance and law enforcement. If a county such as Kent falls into some or all of these categories, the wealth formula produces a skewed number.

Kent County currently pays the 4th highest per pupil cost in the state, at $9,572. The county’s fiscal year 2030 per pupil funding is expected to increase by 66% to $15,905. All this while living where the median household income is ranked 17th of 24 in the state.

My point is that the recommendations have not been properly analyzed or vetted. There are many jurisdictions that are getting miscategorized. Is yours one of them? Will this reform put an undue burden on your jurisdiction’s taxpayers?

The Kirwan Commission has emulated the Massachusetts education reform from a few years ago. In Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average per pupil funding is $16,197. In Kent County, the total per pupil amount (local, state, federal and other) is currently $17,239. About one-third of Maryland jurisdictions currently fund above the Massachusetts rate. How can we then, as taxpayers, be confident that our state has costed the Maryland reform properly? Assuming this legislation passes, the increased dollars spent on education are mandated by the bill. The time for analysis will be over.

The General Assembly is trying very hard to expeditiously pass this legislation this year. But they are pushing so fast that there is not ample consideration being given to the reform recommendations in the bill. There is not ample consideration given to the jurisdictions that have a high percentage of poverty or the effects on our vulnerable communities. It is time to push the pause button and ensure that the taxpayers can afford the increases before we charge forth.

Shelley L. Heller (sheller@kentgov.org) is the county administrator for Kent County and serves on the Maryland Association of Counties Legislative Committee. P. Thomas “Tom” Mason (tmason@kentgov.org) is the president of the Board of County Commissioners, Kent County, Maryland and is writing on behalf of the entire board.


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