Warren to Bristol: Let’s talk school funding
Town extends invitation to discuss establishment of school taxing authority
The Warren Town Council extended a fiscal olive branch to Bristol and the Bristol Warren Regional School District Tuesday, inviting both to discuss the establishment of a school taxing authority to fund education in the two towns.
The idea of a special taxing district — to remove the authority to generate education-specific tax revenue from the towns and give that authority to the school district itself — is not new. It has been discussed on and off for more than seven years. But Warren council members believe the time has come to seriously consider it.
“This is absolutely the fairest way to go about establishing equity between the two towns,” Warren council member Chris Stanley said.
This way, “everybody’s on equal footing.”
Special tax districts like that being proposed work like this: All taxable properties within the district are assessed together. Then, as is the case with municipal taxing, the resulting tax base — the cumulative value of all properties in the district — is used to calculate a tax rate suitable to raise the amount of money the school district requires.
Proponents of the plan here believe it will be fairer to both towns, as Bristol has a much larger tax base, and more commercial property, than Warren.
Joanne DeVoe, who served as an at-large citizen member of the Joint Finance Committee, helped establish such a district in Baltimore, Md., before moving to Warren 17 years ago. She said the current mode of funding, in which each town generates revenue with widely varying municipal tax rates and wealth, is inherently unfair:
“Bristol has raised school funds with a lower tax rate than Warren because it has a higher tax base per pupil,” she said.
Using tax figures provided by the state Department of Revenue, she said that if Bristol and Warren gave the school department the power to assess properties and tax accordingly, the bottom line would change:
“On average a regional tax rate would have been $7.25 per $1,000 if it was done for both (towns) together,” she said. When the calculation is done for each town separately, she said, “Bristol’s (overall) rate would only have to go up 48 cents. Warren’s would go down by $1.15 in order to have that $7.25 rate.”
“There is sentiment coming from both Warren and Bristol that the only fair way to do this is to have one taxing district.”
Warren Town Manager Jan Reitsma and school committee chairman Paul Silva met with school administrators and officials from Bristol Tuesday. Both were also at Tuesday’s council meeting, and said the idea to discuss a taxing district is a good one — but must be done sensitively and as a unified body.
The state Supreme Court recently dismissed an appeal by Bristol and the school department over an earlier lower court decision that sided with Warren on how state education aid was being dispersed in Bristol and Warren. The court’s ruling, that state aid had indeed been dispersed incorrectly, with Bristol getting too much and Warren too little for several years, has caused some in Bristol, including former Town Administrator Halsey Herreshoff, to call for deregionalization. Overall, Mr. Reitsma said, there is a “very high level of sensitivity” in each town.
That sensitivity was apparent at Tuesday’s meeting, he said. When the idea of a tax district was broached, “there was somewhat of a resistance to it, as to how the proposal would be introduced.”
“If it is introduced as a one-sided initiative, it would not be so positive,” Mr. Reitsma said. “It is important to do it with both towns” at the table.
Mr. Silva agreed. “Something like this would help resolve that angst and make it more of a unified discussion,” he said.
While neither Bristol Town Administrator Steven Contente nor Bristol Town Council chairman Nathan Calouro returned telephone calls placed Wednesday, Bristol Town Council vice chairman Timothy Sweeney responded via e-mail. He said:
"I greatly value our school system and the progress we have made as one community.
Warren Town Council President Joseph DePasquale said officials from Warren will send possible dates to their counterparts in Bristol, inviting everyone to schedule and attend a collaborative work session, likely in July or August.
“Absolutely, we are hoping for a positive response from our invitation to Bristol and the school committee to come, and move this forward,” Mr. DePasquale said.
What he wants to see, he said, is “dialogue, good bonding and forward thinking.”
Author's note: This story was updated at 11:12 a.m. Thursday, June 15, to reflect Mr. Sweeney's comments.