ANNAPOLIS – Two of Maryland’s wealthiest suburban counties rank second and third statewide in the percentage of local tax base spent on students, while its two richest rural counties are at the bottom, a Capital News Service computer analysis reveals.
Howard and Montgomery counties boast per-pupil tax bases among the top 10 statewide, at $279,331 and $381,398, respectively. Still, the counties allotted tax money amounting to 1.7 percent and 1.6 percent of their tax bases on education, respectively.
By comparison, Worcester and Talbot counties, which have the two highest per-pupil tax bases in Maryland, spend less local revenue on schooling as a function of wealth than any other county. The two counties in 1996 spent 1.1 percent each as a function of their tax base per student.
School spending is the focus of ongoing discussion among state officials as they approach the 1998 General Assembly Session. Lawmakers are being pressed to expand state aid to Maryland’s 24 school districts, and are paying special attention to those with a high proportion of impoverished students.
Capital News Service used 1995-’96 State Department of Education data for its analysis. The per-pupil tax expenditure — how much county money supports each student enrolled — was divided by that county’s per-pupil tax base — how much property can be taxed to pay for each student’s education.
The resulting proportion may be viewed as a measure of the district’s ability and willingness to spend on education. It was converted into a percentage for ease of comparison (see attached chart).
The disparity between the school spending of suburban and rural counties may reflect divergent demographic groups, which, in turn, generate divergent funding priorities, experts said.
In Montgomery and Howard counties, the age and makeup of the population to some extent dictate the demand for schooling, said Jennifer Rice, a professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The two counties “have families with kids in the house who are more willing to spend” on schooling, she said. “They have a greater need for education services.”
Conversely, rural Eastern Shore counties like Talbot and Worcester generally are populated by older people with different financial priorities, Rice explained.
“With older people, all their money tends to be tied up in property,” she said. “They don’t have very much liquid income.” Property taxes used to generate revenue for education spending “would be a big burden on them.”
Gene Counihan, chairman of the state’s Task Force for Education, Equity, Accountability and Partnerships, said another possible explanation for Worcester County’s low spending rate is its immense tax base. At $429,708 per student, it is the largest in the state.
“Worcester County has Ocean City,” Counihan pointed out. “The vacation houses give them so much property tax revenue that they don’t have to spend a high percentage on schools.”
Rice observed that Howard and Montgomery county schools are well-known for their above-average academic performance, and that those county governments place a high priority on sustaining that prestige.
“Both counties want to stay on top of the pile in terms of scores,” she said. “The school districts want to maintain their good reputations.”
Rice added that high-quality schools often will attract new residential growth, which can stimulate the county economy in general, and maintain a steady supply of tax revenue for the government.
The counties “want people to move to their community and when people are moving, they look at the quality of public schools,” she said. The influx of new families also “keeps their tax base high.”
In Talbot County, drumming up tax revenue for schools is particularly difficult because of a cap barring any adjustment of homeowner property assessments beyond their 1992 levels.
David Ewing, Talbot County division supervisor of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, said that, like Worcester, Talbot is populated by wealthy retirees whose assets would be hit hard by a property tax hike.
“A lot of them are on a fixed income and they want to protect their investments,” he said.
The State Board of Education in 1995 tried to free up some property tax money by suing Talbot County government to eliminate a cap on the property tax itself, which in 1994 was set at 0.65 percent. The state won, and the property tax more than doubled to 1.39 percent in 1997, Ewing said. The rate still is lower than the state average of roughly 2.5 percent.
By contrast, rural Somerset County spends 1.75 percent of its per-pupil wealth on education, the most of all Maryland counties. The county’s tax base, which is only $123,968 a student, is the state’s second lowest, behind Baltimore City’s $120,889.
William Cain, director of finance and support services for the Somerset County Board of Education, said one explanation for the top ranking is that the school budget becomes a higher priority where there is less tax revenue to go around. “The smaller the tax base you have, the larger portion of the tax base you have to spend on education,” he said. “Education in this county has been a big priority with the commissioners.” -30-