As the cost of running the district continues to rise, and as Madison homeowners and families find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, it is easy to think that our property taxes are also ever rising. But that’s not the case, at least as regards the portion that goes toward our schools. Over the past 15 years, the schools’ portion of Madison property taxes has declined 6%, on average. The decrease is 9% if you adjust for today’s higher enrollment figures (1993 = 23,600; 2007 = 24,200). And it plunges to a 36% decrease if you adjust for inflation; (a dollar today is worth 30% less than it was 15 years ago).
The chart below, based on local funding of MMSD and data from the city assessor’s office, shows the recent history of school mill rates, the rate that is applied to your assessed property value to determine how much you contribute towards Madison schools (10 mills = 1.0% of the assessed property value). The reported rate has dropped from 20 mills to 10, but property values have doubled thanks to the general rise in home prices (termed “revaluations” by the assessor’s office), so the rate is more appropriately captured below by the “Net of Revaluations” line. That line is then adjusted for school enrollment (the red line), and inflation (the heavier blue line).
There are three important caveats to the above statements: 1.) school taxes are lower on average, but if your home has increased in value by more than about 110% since 1993, then you will be paying more for schools; 2.) it is the schools portion of property taxes that is lower on average; the remaining portion of property taxes that pays for the city, Dane County, Wisconsin, and MATC, has risen; 3.) other sources of Madison school funding (state and federal funds, and grants and fees) have also gone up; (I have not done the much more complicated calculation of real increase in funding there).
That the infamous schools’ portion of property taxes has declined over these past 15 years is quite a surprising result, and certainly counterintuitive to what one might expect. How is this possible? First, the school finance structure put in place by the state years ago has worked, at least as far as holding down property taxes. The current structure allows about a 2% increase in expense each year, consistent with the CPI (Consumer Price Index) at the state level. (In fact, local funding of the MMSD has increased from $150 million in 1993 to $209 million in 2007, equivalent to about a 2.4% increase each year.) Of course, the problem is that same structure allows for a 3.8% wage hike for teachers if districts wish to avoid arbitration, an aspect that has essentially set an effective floor on salary increases (with salaries & benefits representing 84% of the district budget). The difference between the revenue increases and the pay increases, about 1-2% annually, is why we face these annual painful budget quandaries that can only be met by cuts in school services, or by a referendum permitting higher school costs, and taxes.
The second reason today’s property taxes are lower than they have been historically is growth, in the form of new construction (i.e. new homes & buildings, as well as remodelings). What we each pay in school property taxes is the result of a simple fraction: the numerator is the portion of school expenses that is paid through local property taxes, while the denominator is the tax base for the entire city (actually the portion of Madison and neighboring communities where kids live within the MMSD). The more the tax base grows, the larger the denominator, and the more people and places to share the property taxes with. Since 1993, new construction in Madison has consistently grown at about 3% per year. Indeed, since 1980 no year has ever seen new construction less than 2.3% nor more than 3.9%. So every year, your property taxes are reduced about 3% thanks to all the new construction in town. I leave it to the reader to speculate how much the pace of new construction and revaluations will decline if the schools here should decline in quality.
FYI, the figure below shows how new construction and revaluations have behaved in Madison since 1984, as well as total valuations (which is the sum of the two).