Do Older Taxpayers Balk at Supporting Schools?

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COMMENTARY | In certain places, opponents to new school taxes are finding success by courting older voters.

It’s the ultimate conundrum. While elected officials constantly make speeches about the importance of offering kids a good education, a surprising number of communities we’ve looked at lately seem resistant to supplying their schools with more cash.

Consider Holyoke, Massachusetts, a community of about 40,000 (and not associated in any way with the elite college, Mount Holyoke). It’s a poor town, and recently had the opportunity to build two middle schools, each to serve 550 students. The Massachusetts School Building Authority agreed to put in nearly $76 million, but the community would have to come up with $54 million. That would have necessitated raising property taxes marginally above the 2.5% level that is ordinarily the limit in the state.

As in other communities considering efforts to improve quality of life for some portion of the population, there were any number of voting blocs that didn’t want to support the tax increase.

But opponents took that natural inclination one step further by seeking out some of the community’s older residents. Holyoke has a number of large senior living facilities and opponents to the tax increase targeted their votes. Ultimately about two-thirds of Holyoke citizens who weighed in on the measure said “Nay.” The weight of their vote was amplified by the fact that this was a non-mayoral election, with low turnout. “Those who did turn out would ostensibly be older, white and more affluent,” says Rebecca Lisi, a city council member there for twelve years. In fact, says Lisi, “For many of the senior city councilors, it’s been a tried and true practice to get face time with the senior population.”

New Hampshire communities, similarly, often struggle to improve funding for their schools, according to AnnMarie French, the executive director of the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute. New Hampshire has the second oldest population in the country and “the question is who attends the meetings that determine the school budgets,” she says. “Working people with kids in the school often don’t have time to attend.”

In fact, she says, “New Hampshire has made a business out of attracting retirees who . . .  don’t see the same use for the school as do [people whose own children are being educated in them.]”

There’s a lesson to be learned here that sounds like a theme from a junior high school book about civics. If you want to be heard, vote. Though there may be differences of opinion between different demographic groups about how to spend money, a well-meaning effort to get younger families involved can really pay off.

It’s important to note, however, that this isn’t simply older people not caring about the need to educate young people. It appears that it’s typically more rooted in the fact that older residents are often on fixed incomes. As a result, even a small increase in one significant tax they pay can have a perceived impact on their ability to maintain their lifestyles.  

For people who are in better economic shape, the paradigm may be different. In Florida, the Sarasota County School Board represents a relatively affluent older population. As a result, “we’ve always had a community of people who were willing to pay taxes for education,” says Jane Goodwin, a member of the school board. “Every four years, we get [an increase in property tax rates] and the people who vote are largely older people.”

Of course, differences in age groups isn’t the only factor that tends to have an impact on local education funding. For example, districts that get more money from their respective states are less likely to need to go to their own citizens for more school money.

There can also be a significant conflict between rural and urban areas. “We’re having less and less jobs in our rural communities . . . and the majority of our referenda are just questions of whether to keep the schools open, reports Kim Kauki, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance. “There’s a smaller pot of cash available to pay for schools in communities with fewer residents.”

Mark Mather, associate vice president for domestic programs at the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, offered up another possibility: Whiter, older people could resist spending more on schools when younger, newer residents don’t look like their families.

 “The youth population may be multi-racial, and much more diverse than older groups,” he says. “The older group may not be supporting programs for youth.”

As difficult as the age vs. youth dichotomy may make it for supporters of schools, it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. If anything, as the population ages, this phenomenon is likely to grow more pronounced.

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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