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Sullivan County residents debate education funding



Valley New Correspondent
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

NEWPORT — A forum hosted by the Sullivan County delegation brought out residents and school officials Tuesday night, most of whom urged lawmakers to override Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget veto to ensure most county school districts receive the state aid for education approved by the Legislature.

The $13 billion two-year budget passed both the House and Senate without Republican support.

According to Kathy Hubert, of Newport, who has been active with a progressive statewide advocacy group working to revamp the way New Hampshire funds public education, more than $11 million would go to school districts in Sullivan County under the budget passed by Democrats in the New Hampshire Legislature. That includes $5.9 million to Claremont, $2.6 million to Newport and $2 million to Charlestown.

But education spending in Sununu’s budget would cut those amounts in half, Hubert said.

“We cannot afford the governor’s budget,” Hubert told the representatives. “We need to bring home the $11 million. Will you override the veto?”

Hubert said in the more than 25 years since the state Supreme Court ruled that an adequate education is a right under the state constitution, there has been little done to address the court’s decision but there has been downshifting of costs and more recently, cuts to the stabilization grant to town and cities for K-12 education.

The 11 state representatives — two of the delegation were not present — did not respond to any of the comments. State Rep. Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, the delegation chairman, said the forum, which drew about 25 people, was simply to listen to constituents.

Other attendees who spoke shared Hubert’s viewpoint.

“The way we fund education is not fair,” said Lisa Ferrigno, a Newport elementary school teacher and co-president of the Newport Teachers Association.

In her classroom, she said pupils have to share computers while in nearby Sunapee, every child has a computer and eventually such disparities leave some students behind.

“They can’t compete because it is not a level playing field,” said Ferrigno, who also told the delegation that Newport is unable to pay teachers the same salaries as towns like Sunapee.

“I could go to Sunapee and make $20,000 more,” she said, noting the Newport district “lost 27 teachers” two years ago and 33 last year. “We can’t keep doing this.”

Interim Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said the money for his district in the budget that was vetoed would cut 20 percent off of Newport’s school tax rate in the coming year, or more than $6 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

When he vetoed the budget in late June, Sununu argued that it contained tax increases that would hurt the New Hampshire economy and would turn the state surplus into a deficit. Democrats said the tax increases — mainly halting a series of business tax cuts passed several years ago that are being phased in — are needed to fund education.

At the forum Tuesday, resident John Lunn said that New Hampshire is one of the wealthiest communities in the country so it is inaccurate to say the state cannot afford to increase funding for public education.

“We can’t keep saying we can’t afford this,” Lunn said. “This state is doing well and we can afford it. We just need to get our act together and do it.”

Not everyone agreed for the need to support the Legislature’s budget.

Croydon residents Ian Underwood and his wife, Jody, chairwoman of the Croydon School Board, presented the delegation with handouts they said proves money will not address the problem of poor school performance.

The Underwoods said property-poor school districts today are spending more money than property-rich towns did, adjusted for inflation, in 1998, the year after the state Supreme Court ruled in one of its Claremont school funding rulings that the state was not doing its part to adequately fund education.

“Whatever the problem is, it is not money,” Ian Underwood said. “Costs keep going up but results are not changing because the problem is not money. There is no correlation.”

There were also comments to look beyond this budget to establish a method of funding education that is separate from the rest of the state budget.

Rhonda Callum, a Newport School Board member, said she understands why Sununu vetoed the budget because of many other controversial spending items in the $13 billion spending plan. She called for a “clean bill” for education that takes the partisanship out of it.

Seth Wilner also called for a long-term solution.

“This is splitting communities. I implore you to do something,” Wilner said, suggesting that special education or teacher benefits could be a state cost that is spread out among all school districts so those costs don’t burden property poor towns. “This thing needs to be resolved.”

Smith, the delegation’s chairman, said after the forum that while his mind was not changed on the budget, he did agree with calls for a separate education funding bill in the future.

“I have brought that up. It should be done outside the budget process,” said Smith, adding that the first obstacle that needs to be cleared is coming up with a formula. “Once we do that, the rest falls into place.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.