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Fosters: Why is Dover’s per-pupil school spending so low?

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Here is highlights from Fosters coverage of Andy Volinsky’s recent School Funding 101 presentation in Dover:

DOVER — The city of Concord spends an average of $68,100 more per 20-student classroom than Dover does. If that trend in per-pupil spending continued for 13 years as the student progressed from kindergarten through 12th grade, that difference per classroom would come to almost $900,000.

Concord has roughly 11,600 more people than Dover, but the cities are similar in many comparisons, such as total school enrollment, equalized property valuation per student and average class sizes. But there are differences. Concord has not implemented a tax cap, and the Concord School Board operates independently of the Concord City Council. Dover has a tax cap and is known as a dependent district, which means the City Council has final say over the School Department’s bottom line number.

District 2 Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky highlighted differences in school spending between the two cities during his recent “Education Funding 101” presentation to Dover municipal elected leaders. City Manager Michael Joyal invited Volinsky, a Concord Democrat, to give the presentation, as education funding has been on many minds in Dover with the municipal budget season in full swing.

In recent weeks, members of the Dover Teachers’ Union and community supporters have called on the City Council to increase the School Board’s $63.9 million budget to bring Dover’s per-pupil spending in line with the state average. According to figures on the New Hampshire Department of Education’s (DOE) website, Dover spent an average of $12,234 per student in the 2017-18 school year, compared to the $15,865 state average. That per-pupil spending figure excludes the cost of constructing the newly opened $87 million high school and the $6.7 million Garrison Elementary School renovation project.

Dover’s per student-spending is among the lowest in the state and is the lowest in the region, according to DOE figures. Portsmouth is well above the average at $18,346; Rochester is pegged at $13,657; Somersworth is at $15,313; and Farmington spends $15,354 per student, according to the DOE. Using Volinsky’s 20-student class sizes for comparison, Rochester spends $28,460 more per classroom than Dover; Somersworth spends $61,560 more; Farmington spends $62,020 more; and Portsmouth spends $120,240 more per class than Dover, according to the DOE figures.

Dover has class sizes that are above the state averages for grades 8 and under. State data for 2017-18 shows the difference was largest at Dover Middle School, which had 25.1 students per class compared to the state average of 16.2. Some changes could be coming in a tentative contract deal the Dover Teachers Union reached with the School Board.

To School Board Chairwoman Amanda Russell, who represents Ward 6, the reason Dover has among the lowest per-pupil spending in the state is simple.

“It comes down to spending. We’ve got to spend more,” Russell said.

She believes that while the way the state pays for education is “fundamentally flawed,” other communities are providing more educational funding than Dover.
“If we spent more, we could keep up to date in technology and curriculum, fund capital projects or save for them in a timely fashion, and pay our staff at more competitive rates. All of these would provide our students with an even better education,” she said.

Often the choice for the School Board comes down to whether to fund technology or curriculum upgrades or keep teachers in the classrooms, and the School Board chooses the latter, Russell said…..

Volinsky told city officials the reason the adequacy aid was set low was to avoid implementing a broad-based tax, like an income or sales tax.

In all, 73 percent of the $3.2 billion spent on education in the state in the 2017-2018 school year came from local property taxes, which includes the state-wide property tax.

Joyal puts a lot of blame on the state.

“Clearly, education funding in this state is inadequate despite the adequacy grants that we receive,” he said last week. Joyal also points to “the continuing downshifting and the lack of support from state and federal agencies.”
One part of the downshifting is in the state retirement system.

“We continue to suffer from the state pulling the carpet from underneath the city and towns when they revoked their share of the retirement cost they had promised many years ago when they created the retirement system,” Joyal said. Now the municipalities have to fund the 35 percent the state had before financed, he said.

Joyal also pointed to the Legislature cutting state cut the school building aid program some years back that provided up to 40 percent of building construction. That pushed much of the build cost for the high school to the local taxpayers, though the state did provide some money for the Career Technical Center portion of the new high school…..

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