Editorial: N.H. Has the Cash, and Its Schools Need Help

  • A Trumbull Nelson Construction Co. employee walks through the Stevens High School Auditorium where classroom furniture is stored during renovations in Claremont, N.H., Wednesday, February 26, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Published: 10/13/2018 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 10/13/2018 10:10:08 PM

In the course of crowing the other day about the state of New Hampshire’s economy, Gov. Chris Sununu said, “One of the problems we have right now at the state is we have more money than we know what to do with. We literally have a $150 million surplus.”

The governor also alluded to a state unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, the nation’s lowest poverty rate, the fastest growing economy in the Northeast and per capita household income that has now surpassed that of Massachusetts.

In light of all this rosiness, it’s reasonable to ask why New Hampshire continues to shortchange its public schools and the many property-poor communities that struggle to pay for them.

In a recent forum at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and John Tobin, lawyers who brought the landmark Claremont school funding cases a couple of decades ago, detailed how the state continues to fail to meet its constitutional obligation, established in those state Supreme Court rulings, to provide an adequate education for all students and to pay for it fairly.

The statewide property tax that was created to meet that obligation provides to school districts a minimum of $3,636 per student. But, Volinsky pointed out, the average cost to educate a student in New Hampshire now exceeds $15,000.

The inadequacy is apparent.

The result is that school funding in New Hampshire continues to depend to a large degree on local property taxes. And when it comes to raising money for schools, property poor communities such as Claremont have to ask much more of their residents than wealthy ones such as Hanover. This disparity was at the heart of the Claremont rulings, which mandated that no child’s access to an adequate education should depend on an accident of geography.

Since then, more and more communities are being adversely affected by the state’s continued over-reliance on local property taxes to pay for education. Tobin told those at the forum that about 77 percent of the state’s students now live in districts where the equalized property value per student is below the state average.

Meanwhile, since 2015, the state has been reducing by 4 percent annually the amount of school stabilization grants, which are intended to cushion the tax impact of enrollment declines. For Claremont, that means a reduction of more than $250,000 next year.

The next governor and the next Legislature need to address education funding again and do it right this time, rather than inviting another protracted lawsuit to force the state to fulfill its obligations to New Hampshire students and taxpayers.

In the meantime, what about that surplus?

Sununu says he’s resisting calls by Democrats to “spend it here, spend it here, spend it here.” The governor says that instead, he’s going to invest this one-time money in infrastructure. That being the case, he should invest some of it in school infrastructure, by asking the Legislature to reinstitute school building aid, which has been suspended since 2009.

In the 50 years prior to that, the state picked up between 30 and 60 percent of the costs of major school construction projects, depending on the wealth of the district undertaking them. Critics became concerned, however, that the state’s obligations were mounting too rapidly, so the Legislature imposed the moratorium.

But the moratorium has the same effect as does insufficient per pupil adequacy aid: Poorer districts can only do school construction by asking their residents to sacrifice greatly, while wealthier ones have a much easier time of it. That’s simply unfair.

Really, we’re happy that the New Hampshire economy is booming, as Sununu boasts. But that good fortune must be put to work for the benefit of all the state’s residents, not just those whom fortune already favors.

Valley News

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