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N.H. Goof Has Schools In a Pinch

Plainfield — A dozen towns across the Upper Valley are feeling the pinch of unexpected shortfalls totaling nearly $500,000 in state education aid for the current budget year as the result of a miscalculation made by the New Hampshire Department of Education.

Officials at the education department learned last month that they had misunderstood the language in a state budget law, leading to the department over-funding $3.4 million to 79 school districts across the state — money that it is now seeking to slash from the next installment of aid in April.

Gregory Vogt, superintendent of the Plainfield School District, said that he just learned that his district faces a $23,000 reduction in state aid yesterday morning, and planned to inform School Board members at tomorrow night’s meeting.

“Having just found out about this, I’m not really sure what the net effect will be,” Vogt said.

The sudden news of a shortfall in anticipated state education funding is a result of the way department officials had interpreted a budget law when calculating each district’s “adequacy aid,” the state formula used to make sure lawmakers meet their constitutional mandate of providing an equal and adequate education to each child.

Department officials mistakenly applied a “hold harmless” clause in the law, which would temporarily offset a drop in funding, to both the previous and current fiscal years — but the clause actually does not apply to the current school year.

Declining enrollment trends, the number of children on the state’s subsidized meal program, and the statewide property tax all influence how adequacy aid is calculated in New Hampshire — and Vogt said all three came into play in Plainfield’s state funding reduction.

Additionally, a law passed last year changed the way the state measures student enrollment, which formerly was based on three-year-old data. Now, enrollment data is collected in real time, and school district officials are having to make quicker adjustments to changing demographics.

That impact can be felt especially hard in smaller districts, such as Plainfield.

“Even if a few kids drop out of a district that has 230 kids, that’s going to make a difference,” said Vogt.

While several Granite State lawmakers have signed onto a bill in the Senate that would restore the $3.4 million shortfall to the affected districts, Vogt was less than confident of the bill’s chances for passage.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’ll see much happen,” he said. “Because of the fiscal situation in the state, I don’t think that we’ll be able to restore this.”

The legislation, which was filed by state Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, would pull $3.4 million from the general fund to continue the “hold harmless” clause for the current year.

George Caccavaro, business administrator at the Mascoma Valley Regional School District, said that the district was fortuitous to have recently settled an insurance dispute that would inject $175,000 into district funds — more than enough to offset the unanticipated $42,000 drop in funding the district is facing for the current year.

Caccavaro said he was planning for the worst-case scenario of the reduction hitting the district in the next installment of state aid, but, “If legislation gets passed and (the funding) gets reinstated, or any part of it gets reinstated, that’s great.”

The Lebanon School District would face the largest cut by far for any of the affected Upper Valley districts with a reduction of $316,000.

Business Administrator Jim Fenn said at a School Board meeting earlier this year that the shortfall, which would total $700,000 over the next two years, was exacerbated in Lebanon’s case by a steep drop in enrollment in the last decade.

If legislation to extend the “hold harmless” clause fails, school districts across the Valley will need to adjust sooner rather than later.

“We were already planning to have less adequacy aid this year,” Vogt said. “The surprise was this year.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213

Related

Letter: State Goofs; Others Pay the Price

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

To the Editor: Here we go again, downshifting more cost to the cities and towns in the guise of a goof. A key state office, the Department of Education, despite having professional and knowledgeable people on its staff, commits a $3.4 million dollar goof and then expects the towns and cities of 79 school districts to make up the difference. …