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NHPR features Attorney John Tobin discussing the impact of NH’s school funding formula on property tax payers and property poor communities

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NHPR interviewed attorney John Tobin about what has emerged as a key issue in the current election campaign at the state level – school funding.  Many candidates for office at all levels are focusing on education in a way we haven’t seen before and John’s and Andy Volinsky’s School Funding 101 forums have been instrumental in enabling voters to ask informed questions about the issue.

Here are highlights from the NHPR interview with attorney Tobin:

…John Tobin is part of the team leading a charge to pressure the state to pay more of that bill. He is former executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance and he represented the plaintiffs in the Claremont Supreme Court cases…..NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Tobin about his efforts.

One of the things the state has used recently to help towns like Berlin for example that are not exactly property rich but their tax rates are high is stabilization grants. The state pays these to help towns that are falling short property tax-wise. Why, in your view, are state stabilization grants not working out so well?

The problem with them is the state is cutting them. They were intended as a substitute during the O’Brien legislature. Several key parts of the formula for adequate education were cut. One of them was supposed to help property poor districts. It was called fiscal disparity aid. That legislature eliminated that and weakened some of the other parts of the formula. The stabilization aid was supposed to make up for that so that those cuts wouldn’t hit these districts. But then three years ago the legislature decided to start cutting stabilization aid itself. And since that money went disproportionately to towns that really needed it with lots of poor kids and low property values, it’s hitting those towns hard. So, many of those towns are in crisis mode with others not far behind. We know about the Berlins and the Pittsfields and the Claremonts. Stabilization aid also goes to Manchester and Nashua and other places who are also feeling these cuts very severely…..

How do you get people interested in property taxes and education funding?

We have been really pleasantly flabbergasted by the interest in this. Andru Volinsky who was my colleague in the Claremont case and the current executive councilor had done a couple of forums at local places explaining the system. So we decided to go ahead and try to do forums around the state and the response has been remarkable. More than 100 people in Pittsfield, close to 150 people in Newport, a good crowd in Derry. We have another one tomorrow night in Berlin. We have six or seven more.

We have a tax system structurally that exacerbates the problem and it also exacerbates the problem of affordable housing. When you talk quietly to town officials around the state they are ambivalent at best in many places about developing new housing for families because they worry about the impact on school budgets. When you step back from that and think about that. Is that a healthy society where we have a tax system that discourages building housing for new families and discourages the formation of new business in dozens and dozens of municipalities?  That is striking a chord with people.

You’ve been putting out a call for people or parents or school districts or property tax payers to step forward as possible plaintiffs in a case against the state since at least May of this year. Has anybody or has a group of people stepped forward to perhaps challenge the state?

I think there are lots of people willing to do that. Actually what we’ve been doing since May is really de-emphasizing that. I am quietly talking and recruiting lawyers to do that if we must. But the far preferable thing would be to resolve this through the democratic process and the legislative process. So that’s what I’m emphasizing and that’s what Andru Volinsky is emphasizing. We are trying to get people to talk to their legislators…..

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