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Valley News on the Mascoma forum: Attorneys say, “N.H. Has Failed Its Students”

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The Valley News covered the Mascoma School Funding 101 forum with its usual insight. Here are the highlights:

Two attorneys who helped lead historic efforts to improve how the Granite State funds its schools said on Thursday that New Hampshire has failed to deliver on hard-earned promises made more than two decades ago, when the Claremont school funding cases were decided.

Speaking before an auditorium of about 30 parents, educators and politicians at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky argued against the status quo of using local property taxes to pay for the majority of education costs. He also called on lawmakers to help property-poor towns that are struggling because of reduced state education grants.

“We don’t really have a system of school funding,” said Volinsky, a Democrat from Concord whose district includes Unity and Newbury. Instead, he said, most towns are left on their own to fund students’ needs.

Volinsky and John Tobin, who both represented school districts during the Claremont cases, visited West Canaan as part of an ongoing push to educate people about school funding. The duo already has given similar talks in Newport, Haverhill, Keene, Pittsfield and Berlin.

They’re hopeful the so-called “School Funding 101” forums will pressure legislators for a change, or garner support for another lawsuit that Tobin is planning. Volinsky has vowed to recuse himself from suing the state as long as he’s involved in government.

To demonstrate New Hampshire’s funding model, Volinsky brought along a large pole that towered feet over his head. Every mark on the stick represented a community’s equalized value per pupil, or how much taxable property a town has per student.

For instance, Claremont has roughly $412,000 of property for every student, which was shown by a mark around Volinsky’s shin.

Canaan has about $790,000 in equalized property value, and took a place near his knee, while Portsmouth, at $2.6 million, was marked atop the pole.

That’s a problem, Tobin argued, because it impacts those towns’ ability to pay for school services. Canaan’s tax rate would have to be much more than the likes of Portsmouth and other wealthy towns to pay for the same education, he said.

“People in [property poor] districts are sacrificing more for their kids,” he told the audience. “They’re running faster, they’re sacrificing more, but they’re still not able to keep up.”

And that’s happening in the majority of school districts in New Hampshire, Tobin added. About 77 percent of students live in districts where the equalized value per pupil is below the state average.

“This is no longer just a problem of the Berlins, the Pittsfields and Claremonts,” he said. “This is a problem that affects a huge number of school districts and it’s a problem that’s accelerating.”

Compounding the Granite State’s reliance on local property taxes is the method devised by state government to aid communities, which came about after the 1990s Claremont cases…..

Some of those attending Thursday’s forum drew attention to another negative impact, remembering the division between towns that the Mascoma Valley Regional School District faced last year when it studied its own funding model.

The district traditionally billed its five member towns based on enrollment, so the more children that one community sends to school, the more that community would pay. However, residents in Canaan and some of the other towns argued that valuation should play a larger role, and pointed to Enfield and its higher property valuation as not contributing a fair share.

The resulting argument was partially ended when a committee — and later the School Board — voted against using town valuations in the funding model, a position later backed by voters at Town Meeting last year.

Read the full article here.

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