In light of the recently announced $1.2 million reduction in state aid for Brunswick’s schools, how much are we willing to pay for high-quality public schools? What can we learn by looking back at Brunswick’s long-standing tradition for valuing education?

We represent three generations of one family who are Brunswick residents. To check our collective memory, we asked, how much were Brunswick residents willing to pay for education in 1970? That was two years after Dennis graduated from Brunswick High School and nine years after John moved to Brunswick with his family (Nathan has only heard stories about 1970, because he was born in 1978 and graduated from BHS in 1996). We compared information from the 1970 decennial census with the Census Bureau’s 2006-2010 American Community Survey, the two closest available surveys of Brunswick.

Our effective property tax rates – the amount paid per $1,000 of market value – were $28.83 in 1970 and $15.63 in 2011.  We might conclude that property taxes were almost double what they are today, but our property values have also increased. The median owner-occupied house value in Brunswick was $16,300 in 1970 and  $198,100 in 2006-2010. The property tax payments for the median house were therefore $470 in 1970 and between $2,600 and $2,800 in 2006-2010.

But a dollar in 1970 went farther than a dollar today, so we calculated the percent of an average household’s income spent on property taxes. The Census provides income data for Brunswick back to 1999, so we assumed that Brunswick’s median household income proportionally tracked Cumberland County’s prior to that time. In 1970, Brunswick’s average property tax payment was 6.29 percent of the average household income, while in 2006-2010 it ranged from 6.12 to 6.51 percent. As a share of income, our average property tax payment is unchanged since 1970.

Is our state or federal tax burden – tax payments as a share of income – higher than it used to be? The National Tax Foundation has calculated the percent of Maine residents’ total income paid in local and state taxes since 1977. It was 10.1 percent in that year and in 2009, the most recent year reported. Multiple reports since 2009 show that the federal tax burden is at its lowest level since 1950.

Brunswick suffered a blow with the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station: between 1999 and 2006-2010 our inflation-adjusted median household income fell by 13.3 percent to about $43,100, while it dropped by only 3.5 percent in Cumberland County. But we’re richer than in 1970 despite the Navy’s departure: real household income increased by 2.75 percent.

As the state withdraws its support, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to send a clear message renewing our commitment to providing among the best schools in the state. It’s an opportunity because we have distinct advantages over other Maine towns facing similar choices.

Even as our national economy languished, we attracted multiple strong businesses to Brunswick Landing, and we don’t expect our success will stop as the economy improves. A crucial component of attracting new businesses is an investment in our schools to ensure that they’re competitive with other communities. Attracting new residents will bring more economic activity to our town and increase our property values.

Brunswick’s commitment to education runs deep. Our family’s roots are inextricably tied to Brunswick because of it, and we know many other families who can tell similar stories. We believe that the next 40 years can be as prosperous as the last 40 if we make smart investments in our town.

If we set our property tax rate so that 20 percent of the average household’s income gain since 1970 (approximately $230) is reinvested in education, we would easily make up for the state’s withdrawal of support.  

It’s time that Brunswick stops tying its decisions to the state’s actions and instead returns to valuing education as we want it. We have the assets and tradition to out-compete other communities in attracting new businesses and residents. Particularly as education becomes more valuable in an increasingly competitive world, we believe our ancestors would instruct us that the greatest long-term gain requires smart short-term sacrifice.

Nathan Tefft is an assistant professor of economics at Bates College in Lewiston. Dennis Tefft is a kitchen designer at Hammond Lumber Co. in Brunswick. John Bibber was the town manager of Brunswick from 1961 to 1989.