It is widely understood that the State of New Hampshire does not fulfill its constitutional obligation to support an “adequate” education for its children. As a result, the burden falls on local property tax payers, especially those in property-poor towns.
Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and retired New Hampshire Legal Assistance attorney John Tobin, key attorneys in the Claremont decisions have been traveling the State bringing school funding into focus for citizens and elected officials.
Now a movement has begun building that is making school funding a significant issue in the fall campaign and in the 2019 legislative session. Claremont school board chair Frank Sprague wrote about it in yesterday’s Valley News and suggested questions for candidates (Here’s a video of the Newport forum Mr. Sprague discusses below):
In Newport recently, about 150 people from around New Hampshire attended an informational session on school funding presented by Andru Volinksy and John Tobin — two of the attorneys who helped litigate a series of state Supreme Court cases in the 1990s that established the state’s responsibility to pay for an “adequate” education. The gathering could also be characterized as the beginnings of a grass-roots movement in reaction to the school funding crisis that many cities and towns are now experiencing.
The presentation included a history lesson on the Supreme Court rulings that directed the state to remedy the inequities in educational opportunity for students based on where they live and that community’s capacity to raise tax dollars.
A good example of the way things should work is Route 10, which traverses many towns: Hanover, Lebanon, Croydon, Newport, Goshen, etc. on its way to Keene. The quality of the road does not change at a town line, and neither should the quality of schools.
Interestingly, similar challenges to school funding formulas have occurred in a number of states, forcing those states, including Vermont, to rethink the funding model. Apparently, the lawmakers in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire would rather fight than switch.
Following court rulings in New Hampshire, the efforts, or non-efforts, of elected officials in both political parties to negate or avoid these responsibilities have resulted in state funding reductions. These actions are sending communities such as Berlin, Franklin, Claremont, Pittsfield, Newport and Keene into an inescapable death-cycle of managing crushing property tax burdens, shrinking property values and potential failure to provide a 21st-century educational experience.
Good schools and stable property values are essential for economic growth as employers rely on these to attract a viable workforce. The deck is stacked for the “have” communities to continue to thrive and those “have-not” communities to continue their inexorable decline.
The session in Newport had some meaningful recommendations for moving forward as some opined that another lawsuit might be in order. The speakers recommended that the next step be the engagement of the democratic process as opposed to a judicial one. They encouraged the electorate to vote, most importantly, and also to ask prospective candidates for governor and both chambers of the Legislature the following questions:
What will you do to make sure that the state updates its adequacy grants to more realistic levels? (They’re currently $3,636 per student, while the average per-pupil cost exceeds $15,000.)
What will you do to make school property taxes more fair and equal across the state?
As an immediate measure, would you support a moratorium on cuts to stabilization grants, which were designed to help property-poor, lower-income towns hurt by the state’s 2012 rewrite of its adequacy formula? Would you support restoring the amount that has been cut since 2015? (Stabilization is being phased out, costing $412,000 yearly in Claremont, and more than $1.2 million in the city since 2015).
If you are in favor of a constitutional amendment on school funding, what would such an amendment say and how would the Legislature be held accountable for supporting our schools?
Because political representation in New Hampshire is based on population, it can be assumed that towns and cities on the western side of the state will have no voice with the majority of the population living to the south and east. It is important to know that 75 percent of the population lives in areas that are harmed by the current system of neglect. It is also important to know that Manchester and Derry may soon be joining the movement for reform in New Hampshire.
Regardless of which town you live in, it is important to vote and to ask the right questions.
Frank W. Sprague is chair of the Claremont School Board. The session on school funding in Newport is available for viewing on Newport Community TV.