September 19, 2019

Pittsfield, Newport at educational odds

PITTSFIELD — Pittsfield and Newport have engaged in a gentle competition for years. Residents of each town often have looked at developments in the other town as a touchstone for their own growth.

But a recent survey compiled for Pittsfield’s comprehensive plan illustrates that rather than the two towns being competitive, they actually are quite dissimilar.

Although both border Interstate 95 and both compete for business and industry, Newport appears more retail and commercially based, whereas Pittsfield has emphasized industrial growth. One of the major differences between the two communities, however, is education-based rather than economic.

“While each community has its own unique set of circumstances, Pittsfield is often compared to Newport in terms of competitive locations for business development. One of the competing factors is the tax rate,” said Mary Anne Hayes this week. Hayes, who has been hired as a consultant to create the comprehensive plan for Pittsfield, has conducted extensive studies on just what makes Pittsfield tick.

Her assessment of the two towns’ tax rates reveals one major difference: Taxpayers of SAD 53, which Pittsfield shares with Burnham and Detroit, are willing to pay a higher percentage of their taxes toward quality education.

Although some Pittsfield residents decry the town’s $22.60 mill rate as too high, the trend appears toward approval as SAD 53 and Maine Central Institute are garnering “a superior educational reputation,” said Hayes. This reputation is bringing families into Pittsfield to buy homes and broaden the tax base.

When school opened this fall, there were 117 new faces in SAD 53 and MCI classrooms.

Hayes said that SAD 48, a six-town district with Newport at its heart, voted to raise no local option funds for the school budget. This has had an impact on keeping the mill rate low, at $14.20.

In Pittsfield, nearly 7 mills of the tax rate is for additional local funding for schools.

“Without the additional local option funding,” said Hayes, “which represents 20 percent of the school budget, the town’s tax rate would be relatively low at about $16 per thousand.”

Dropping the local option funds would be devastating to the reputation that SAD 53 and MCI have earned.

“Clearly the impact on educational services provided would also be extreme if the local option were not funded,” said the consultant. “During 1997-98, the three-town tax base is supporting a high proportion — about 45 percent — of the cost of education in SAD 53, while the state is contributing just 52 percent.”

According to Hayes’ statistics, Pittsfield’s valuation has risen by about $17 million since 1991, while Newport’s has risen by about $10 million. “So while Pittsfield holds the edge on total valuation and has more households over which to distribute the tax burden, the per-capita assessment is almost $150 per person higher in Pittsfield,” she said.

“It is debatable whether spending equals higher quality,” said Hayes, “but many would argue that for a superior quality education, $150 per capita is a bargain.”

Hayes said that “there is good news as well. Both the district and the town have very little debt.

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