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Today’s Concord Monitor piece, “Teachers, students separated by 20 miles face very different circumstances,” contrasts Bow and Pittsfield

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This is an important article because it gives direct insights into how financial issues drive academic achievement in our schools. Read the whole piece here to get a sense of the aspirations and challenges in Pittsfield compared to Bow.  For our purposes right now, we have highlighted below some points most relevant to the discussion of SB 193, the statewide voucher bill.

Reaching Higher NH projects that the new proposed amendment to SB 193 could cost Pittsfield up to $31,000 in the first year and up to $1.8 million over the first 11 years of the SB 193 program.  It might not cost that much but, under SB 193, the district has to be ready for that possibility.

But in Bow, the larger and wealthier district, the cost would not be over $12,000 in the first year and less than $750,000 over 11 years.

The differential impact in these two communities illustrates the statewide picture in microcosm.  Kearsarge Republican Rep. Karen Umberger, chair of the Finance subcommittee responsible for SB 193, was quoted in today’s Concord Monitor saying, “We certainly don’t want to spend more [education money] than we have. Because that’s what we have,”

Rep. Umberger was talking about the state education budget but this Monitor piece highlights the key question for about the bill.  As you read these excerpts below, think about whether you would want to say, “Money is tight in the state’s General Fund.  We’ll just have Pittsfield – and Manchester, Nashua, Concord, Rochester, Derry, Dover, Laconia, Keene, Claremont and Somersworth and the communities projected to receive the most SB 193 grants – pay for the private educations we would like to provide for a few students.”

…The schools in Bow – an affluent, suburban community bordering Concord – have always enjoyed a sterling reputation for academic success and good pay for educators, where teachers earn on average $63,169 a year.

Twenty miles away, the schools in Pittsfield – a geographically isolated, depressed former mill town – have faced test scores and graduation rates well below average. There, teachers are paid on average $22,000 a year less than Bow. While the district has a contingent of veteran staff, it faces high turnover – sometimes up to 20 percent a year – and a steady churn of young, untried teachers.

“We lost our whole English department last year. It was just me left. So you lost your 7-8 teacher, your 9-10 teacher. And our literacy interventionist – that position was cut,” said 11th and 12th-grade English teacher Jenny Wellington.

New Hampshire’s property-tax dependent way of funding its schools offers plenty of easy, eye-popping contrasts. Compare, for example, scenic Seacoast municipalities who spend thousands above the state average per-pupil, but do so for single-digit property tax rates – while poor, rural centers in Coos County face staggering tax rates while spending far less per student.

A close look at two Capital-area districts, Bow and Pittsfield, underlines the importance of property wealth. But it also emphasizes how other factors – community affluence, size, geography – can influence what resources students have and how well they do.

Thanks to millions in federal and private grants, Pittsfield has been going through a district-wide transformation over the past decade….

But one thing the grants haven’t been able to do is boost teacher salaries. And that’s cost Pittsfield.

With wages substantially below the state average teacher pay of $57,522, the district is at a disadvantage when trying to attract the most qualified staff. Only 39 percent of Pittsfield’s teachers have a master’s degree, while 69 percent of Bow’s teachers do.

“Most people leave because of the pay. That is just the fact. When you don’t pay your teachers well, it becomes a training ground for new teachers. And they can get a year or two under their belt, and then they can go to another school,” Wellington said. More importantly, it’s also made a big difference in how long the districts can retain teachers.

For kids, a teacher’s experience is painfully obvious. Here’s Bow junior Jason Howe’s blunt take on it: “The ones that have been here forever are the best. The new ones aren’t as good.”…..

The turnover is also a drag on the teachers that do stay behind – and who say it badly stymies forward progress….

When Pittsfield’s teachers walk out the door, they don’t just take their newfound expertise. Deciding it would be the best way to create long-term changes with temporary dollars, the district sank the bulk of its grants in professional development.

(“And then we hire ’em,” said Dean Cascadden, Bow’s superintendent, almost guiltily.)

Both Bow and Pittsfield have similarly progressive teaching ideals about individualized learning. In Bow, students must complete a self-directed, 70-hour project in order to graduate. In Pittsfield, students are encouraged to find a project outside the classroom for academic credit, to lead classroom
discussions – even to critique their teacher’s lesson plans.

But in large part because of scale – Pittsfield’s high school enrollment hovers around 150 – the two districts’ abilities to cater to student interests look far different.

While Bow has a bevy of in-house offerings, especially at the higher level – a slew of advanced placement classes, electives like engineering and metalsmithing, four foreign languages – Pittsfield relies almost entirely on online classes for AP and dual-enrollment courses….

Both districts have roughly similar per-pupil costs. But their tax rates, while both over the state average, have stood wide apart, with Bow’s at $26.29 in 2016 and Pittsfield’s at $32.26. Bow, meanwhile, liened 48 properties in 2017. Pittsfield, a town nearly half Bow’s size, liened 99.

Frustrated by taxes, Pittsfield has, on several occasions, flirted with closing its high school.

The last of Pittsfield’s grants will end this year.  The district has made some gains, according to administrators – but they’ve been uneven. All of the district’s campuses are no longer on the state’s list of schools most in need of improvement. But gains in measures like drop-out rates and test scores have been small.

“We’ve found that we’ve had mixed success and at this point believe that we did not identify the most effective levers,” said Pittsfield superintendent John Freeman. “In terms of practices of continuous improvement, the funds allowed us to test potential solutions and learn from our experiences. We’ve also come to learn that complex problems may require complex (and sometimes expensive) solutions.”

Real the whole thing here: Teachers, students separated by 20 miles face very different circumstances. It’s well worth it.


1 Comment

  1. wgersen says:

    There are several places in NH where the “20-mile rule” might apply… and having grown up and worked in other parts of the country I can attest to the fact that the rule applies in almost every state in the nation… until we move away from our reliance on property taxes as the primary mechanism for funding schools inequality will always be with us… Thanks for keeping the spotlight on this issue!

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