During Claremont Stop, Incoming Governor Told Education Funding Still the Key
Hypertherm President Evan Smith, left, and CFO Carey Chan give a tour to Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan at the firm’s new building in Lebanon. Hassan also stopped yesterday in Claremont and Keene. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Claremont — It was a wide-ranging conversation, but education seemed to be the one issue that kept percolating to the top among the comments from city, school and business leaders during a visit from Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan yesterday at River Valley Community College.
State building aid for Stevens High School, financial aid-funding for community colleges, public school choice and new ways to fund K-12 education were all mentioned as important initiatives for Hassan to pursue. Many said the stigma of the city school’s current probation status with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, an accreditation organization, hurts the city’s ability to attract industry and residents.
Underlying all of the proposals and pleas for state help were the state’s own ongoing budgetary woes. While Hassan was sympathetic to most of what she heard and pledged to work on the ideas presented, she reminded her audience that the state was not itself in a strong fiscal position.
“I’m trying to be realistic as I talk to cities around the state. Four years ago, we lost 25 percent of our revenue overnight,” Hassan said, referencing the effects of the Great Recession on tax collection. “We all feel the impact.”
Hassan, the Exeter Democrat, said she wants to address the reality that not all communities have the capacity to absorb that loss.
“If we work with each other, we can find our way forward.”
Hassan said she would support one regulated casino in the state to bring in more revenue.
“It could be an important piece to new revenue,” Hassan said after the discussion ended. “Massachusetts is doing it and if we don’t, we lose (revenue).”
With respect to education, state Rep. John Cloutier said he would prioritize introducing legislation for school building aid for Claremont should voters approve a bond next March to renovate Stevens High School. A state moratorium on building aid is scheduled to be lifted July 1 but the $50 million that will become available is already committed to existing or approved projects, so Cloutier would need to convince his colleagues to set aside money specifically for Claremont.
Tom Rock, chairman of the Claremont Development Authority, echoed what others said about the impact on the city when the state reduces spending that must be picked up by cities and towns.
Rock said his daughter, a real estate professional, told him some people in the market for new homes won’t buy in Claremont because of education, including the probation, and the tax rate.
The (high) tax rate, Rock said, is partly a function of lost state revenues.
“We can’t keep absorbing things the state no longer wants to fund.”
Among the more passionate comments on education were those by Claremont attorney Tom Connair and Brian Stowell, president of Crown Point Cabinetry.
Connair, who has been at the forefront of the education funding issue for decades, said failed leadership in Concord since the 1997 Claremont II state Supreme Court ruling has left communities like Claremont struggling to pay for educational needs.
“We have pockets like Claremont all over the state because of the way we fund education through property taxes,” Connair said.
“Claremont has done well in spite of Concord, not because of Concord,” he said. “What is missing is leadership. There has been a failure to engage in a debate on fairness.”
Though one of the wealthiest states in the nation, Connair said New Hampshire lags states such as Texas and Mississippi in state education funding.
“It is a bit of an embarrassment,” he said, urging Hassan to at some point to rethink her decision to take a pledge against broad-based taxes.
Stowell came at the education issue from an entirely different perspective.
He called upon Hassan to push for universal school choice in New Hampshire, saying it would bring industry to the state.
“I can tell you if New Hampshire became the first state to offer universal school choice, you would have businesses getting in line to come here,” Stowell said, adding that he is not opposed to public schools. “You want to change the state, change the education approach.”
Stowell said their clients always tell them that the school system is the number one factor they consider when deciding whether to move to a community.
Hassan said she would be willing to have a longer discussion on the issue but also told Stowell educators look at the concept of competition differently than business owners.
City officials in attendance yesterday included City Manager Guy Santagate and Finance Director Mary Walter, along with several city councilors and Mayor James Neilsen.
The mayor broached the subject of funding for road improvement projects and noted the state’s 10-year plan would take 17 years to complete because of the lack of money. Neilsen said the state should consider increasing the gas tax.
“A nickel a gallon would allow the state to catch up on these projects,” Neilsen said.
Hassan concluded the hour-long discussion by telling her audience she appreciated their input and promised to make Claremont a regular stop during her term as governor.
“I want to make sure these conversations continue to take place and we actually implement ideas to move the state forward,” she said. ‘We can see these challenges as a burden or confront them as opportunities and meet them head on.”
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.