×

Attorneys: N.H. Has Failed Its Students



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2018

West Canaan — Two attorneys who helped lead historic efforts to improve how the Granite State funds its schools said on Thursday that New Hampshire has failed to deliver on hard-earned promises made more than two decades ago, when the Claremont school funding cases were decided.

Speaking before an auditorium of about 30 parents, educators and politicians at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky argued against the status quo of using local property taxes to pay for the majority of education costs. He also called on lawmakers to help property-poor towns that are struggling because of reduced state education grants.

“We don’t really have a system of school funding,” said Volinsky, a Democrat from Concord whose district includes Unity and Newbury. Instead, he said, most towns are left on their own to fund students’ needs.

Volinsky and John Tobin, who both represented school districts during the Claremont cases, visited West Canaan as part of an ongoing push to educate people about school funding. The duo already has given similar talks in Newport, Haverhill, Keene, Pittsfield and Berlin.

They’re hopeful the so-called “School Funding 101” forums will pressure legislators for a change, or garner support for another lawsuit that Tobin is planning. Volinsky has vowed to recuse himself from suing the state as long as he’s involved in government.

To demonstrate New Hampshire’s funding model, Volinsky brought along a large pole that towered feet over his head. Every mark on the stick represented a community’s equalized value per pupil, or how much taxable property a town has per student.

For instance, Claremont has roughly $412,000 of property for every student, which was shown by a mark around Volinsky’s shin.

Canaan has about $790,000 in equalized property value, and took a place near his knee, while Portsmouth, at $2.6 million, was marked atop the pole.

That’s a problem, Tobin argued, because it impacts those towns’ ability to pay for school services. Canaan’s tax rate would have to be much more than the likes of Portsmouth and other wealthy towns to pay for the same education, he said.

“People in those districts are sacrificing more for their kids,” he told the audience. “They’re running faster, they’re sacrificing more, but they’re still not able to keep up.”

And that’s happening in the majority of school districts in New Hampshire, Tobin added. About 77 percent of students live in districts where the equalized value per pupil is below the state average.

“This is no longer just a problem of the Berlins, the Pittsfields and Claremonts,” he said. “This is a problem that affects a huge number of school districts and it’s a problem that’s accelerating.”

Compounding the Granite State’s reliance on local property taxes is the method devised by state government to aid communities, which came about after the 1990s Claremont cases.

In response to a lawsuit brought by Claremont and four other communities, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that New Hampshire’s system of paying for K-12 education was unconstitutional, and called for students to have equal access to an adequate education.

The court also ordered the Legislature to calculate the cost of that adequate education and implement taxes that are equal across the state.

The statewide education property tax was created afterward and provides a minimum of $3,636 per student to school districts. But that’s not “adequate,” Volinsky said, because the average cost to educate a single student in New Hampshire now tops $15,000.

And since 2015, the state has reduced the amount of its stabilization grants by 4 percent annually.

The grants were meant to ease the tax impact on school districts experiencing enrollment decreases.

Those funding reductions are expected to hit the budgets of several Upper Valley school districts, including Claremont, which will see its share of stabilization money drop by about $251,300 next year, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education.

Meanwhile, Lebanon will see a roughly $30,700 drop in its stabilization funding, while Canaan could receive $38,200 less than it did this year.

Tobin said the combination of all these problems has far-reaching effects, discouraging businesses from wanting to invest in New Hampshire and potentially turning away young families.

It’s also possible that some planners have turned down needed housing projects over fears that the children who might move in would add to the tax burden, he said.

“Any society wants young families to stay here and prosper,” Tobin said, adding the school funding system discourages that mentality.

Some of those attending Thursday’s forum drew attention to another negative impact, remembering the division between towns that the Mascoma Valley Regional School District faced last year when it studied its own funding model.

The district traditionally billed its five member towns based on enrollment, so the more children that one community sends to school, the more that community would pay. However, residents in Canaan and some of the other towns argued that valuation should play a larger role, and pointed to Enfield and its higher property valuation as not contributing a fair share.

The resulting argument was partially ended when a committee — and later the School Board — voted against using town valuations in the funding model, a position later backed by voters at Town Meeting last year.

Volinsky agreed that local property taxes place a lot of pressure on individual districts, and encouraged residents to look to Concord for a fix. With elections in November, he said, now is the time to ask candidates about these issues.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.