School funding will be a central issue in the next legislature so we’re catching up on some posts that tee the issue up for readers. The Concord Monitor has been on top of this issue for quite awhile and in June published this editorial highlighting the plight of Franklin as representative of the broader issue.
….Lawmakers should hear from Franklin freshman Jada LePierre, who told Monitor reporter Leah Willingham that she was “sick of the stereotype that ‘Oh, you’re from Franklin – you’re not going to go anywhere.’ . . . That’s not a burden we should have to bear as kids.” No, Jada, it isn’t.
Last year, the New Hampshire Center for Pubic Policy Studies reported that essentially nothing has changed since the historic Claremont school funding decisions were issued two decades ago. Property-rich school districts still spend two or more times as much per pupil as property-poor school districts like Franklin. Tax rates in property-poor districts are still four or five times higher than the rate in wealthy districts.
Since the report was issued the inequities have worsened. In 2015 New Hampshire’s miserly Legislature decided to phase out the stabilization grants designed to hold school districts financially harmless when enrollments decline. The communities that sued the state – Claremont, Franklin, Pittsfield, Allenstown and Milan – are among those hardest hit by the decision. Franklin’s state aid is declining by $160,000 per year, roughly enough to retain two or three teachers.
It’s time for talk of another school funding lawsuit to lead to action. Property-poor communities have nothing to lose. Property-poor cities and towns with underfunded, struggling schools have little or no chance of attracting employers or the movers, shakers and volunteers who can bring a place back to life.
The Legislature, and governors current and past, have thumbed their noses at the Constitution with impunity for two decades. In a state where average per-pupil spending tops $16,000 per year, it’s absurd to pretend that the state can provide an adequate education for every child for $3,600 per year. The so-called statewide education property tax of $2 and change is nothing but a surcharge on local property taxes. The money is collected and spent locally and never sent to the state. Lawmakers responded to the whining of property-rich communities, who dubbed themselves “donor towns,” by allowing them to keep rather than share money raised by the tax that’s in excess of their per-pupil state adequacy aid. That’s unequal taxation and thus unconstitutional.
The final section of the piece, about the State Wide Property Tax (SWEPT), clearly has a lot of emotion behind it but anyone who lived through the last donor town fight will find the proposal that some New Hampshire towns increase their property taxes to pay for education in other towns pretty hard to imagine. The real problem is that the SWEPT was a fiction from the beginning, shifting to property tax payers an obligation that should have come from the state general fund. A gas tax might have worked. But here’s the case the CM makes:
If property-poor communities sue, and they should, they should begin with the statewide property tax.
The Legislature capped the amount it raises with the tax at $363 million per year, which doesn’t account for inflation. The cap should be scrapped. If education is a statewide responsibility there can be no such thing as donor towns. It’s time to end that nonsense and send the money raised by the statewide property tax, which was initially set at $6.60 per $1,000, to the state.
Nothing prevents the state from targeting education aid based on need once it pays for a truly adequate education of every child. That aid should come from a higher statewide property tax and go to places like Franklin, where the future of the city’s children is being sacrificed by the state’s refusal to fairly fund public education.