Here is John Tobin’s latest report to the New Hampshire Bar News on the status of the school funding issue:
In April I wrote an article for the New Hampshire Bar News about how the current school funding system, with its wildly disproportionate property tax rates, is decimating the school systems and economies of dozens of New Hampshire towns and cities, with many more communities also in increasing jeopardy. I noted that this crisis had pushed me to come out of retirement and start recruiting lawyers for a possible new school- funding lawsuit. In the intervening five months I have quietly pursued that effort. But I am also very happy to report that the Bar News article, which was widely distributed and republished, has helped to spur a groundswell of efforts to bring the issues of school funding and property taxes into the center of public discussion and debate during the current election season.
With help from many people, and especially former legislator and former New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies director Doug Hall, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and I have been holding “Education Funding 101” forums around the state, and a number of people are raising these issues in letters to the editor and op-ed columns, as well as through social media. These efforts have already made a difference — the issue is getting a lot more attention, and this momentum seems to be building on itself.
In these forums, we give people across the State basic information about the current school funding system. Here is a condensed version.
A Guide to School Funding
• The State Legislature has enacted comprehensive standards for an adequate education, but the amount of aid the State provides to meet these standards is woefully insufficient. While the average annual per pupil cost is over $15,000 per year, the State’s main “adequacy grant” provides only $3,636 per year. And, for the past three years, the Legislature has been reducing “stabilization aid,” one of the core components of state funding for many school districts. Even when all of the state education grants are added together, the State pays only about 20 percent of the cost of education in New Hampshire.
• More than 70 percent of the cost of educating our children is paid by local property taxpayers at tax rates that are grossly disproportionate from town to town. For example, in the 2015-2016 school year, the Rye School District spent $19,535 per pupil, while the total rate of state and local school property taxes in Rye was only $6.20. In Pittsfield, the per-pupil spending was $14,723, but the combined education tax rate was $18. This great disparity occurs because the equalized value of property in Rye is $3,311,717 per student, but in Pittsfield the equalized value per student is only $463,649.
• Towns with a great deal of valuable property (“property wealthy”) can raise enough money to spend generously on their students, even while their tax rates remain low. Because of the great disparities in property wealth from town to town, taxpayers in the property poor towns like Pittsfield pay much higher rates but are able to raise much less for their schools than districts with lake-front property, ski resorts, or very valuable coastline.
• Taxpayers in property-poor towns make much greater financial sacrifices for their students, but they still struggle to raise enough money to meet their schools’ basic needs. In recent years, many of these school districts have been laying off teachers and other employees, delaying building maintenance, skimping on equipment, eliminating classes, and losing talented and experienced teachers to other districts which can afford to pay higher salaries.
The Connections Between the School Funding System and the State’s Demographic and Economic Challenges
At the forums and in other discussions, we have also been pointing out that the current school funding system exacerbates long-term economic decline and demographic stagnation in many parts of the State. The current school funding system makes it harder to reverse the unsettling changes in New Hampshire’s population in the past two decades or to address the struggles of many regions of the state to preserve or expand their local economies. For instance, why would a new business open in a town with high tax rates and a school system that is struggling financially? And, why wouldn’t the owner of an existing business in a property-poor town with high tax rates feel financially pressured to relocate?
The funding system also discourages young families from moving to school districts with high property taxes and insufficiently funded school systems, and it often prompts local officials to oppose the creation of affordable workforce housing for young families because of the impact of additional children on school budgets.
Thus, the current school funding system hurts students, their parents, local homeowners, and businesses and it works directly against the efforts to attract and keep young people, enlarge the work force, and encourage new businesses in all regions of the state. This perspective — that the school-funding system makes these problems worse — has struck a strong chord with many people all over the state. I am particularly encouraged about the possibilities for finding common ground with the business community and other local leaders as we all try to address these challenges.
We have been very encouraged by the attendance and the engagement of local residents, municipal officials, and legislative candidates at our forums in school gymnasiums and auditoriums in all parts of the state, including Pittsfield, Newport, Derry, and Berlin. Local school districts have collaborated to make these into regional events and the average attendance is well over 100.
Before the November election we are planning to hold similar regional events in Rochester, Keene, Nashua, Grafton County, and Manchester. More discussions, more sharing of data and perspectives, and more efforts to stimulate public discourse will help everyone understand and face the grave flaws in the current school funding system. While a lawsuit may ultimately be necessary to push the issue to a resolution, even if it is successful, the issues of school funding and burdensome property taxes will still have to be debated by our citizens and leaders and then resolved by our democratic institutions, particularly the Legislature.
Ask a Candidate
With the 2018 election season at its peak and many school districts in crisis or on the precipice, we must raise the issue of school funding and property taxes with each of the candidates for governor and with everyone who is running for the state House or Senate.
Here are three questions to ask every candidate:
• What will you do to make sure that the State updates its adequacy grants to realistic levels?
• What will you do to make school property tax rates more fair and equal across the state?
• As an immediate measure, would you support a moratorium on cuts to stabilization aid? Would you support restoring the amount that has been cut since 2015?
Attorney John E. Tobin Jr. is the former executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance.