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Senate Finance Committee Budget Hearings – Ed. Funding Update

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NH School Funding Fairness Project, Newsletter 20

First, some inspiration!  

People showed up in force to testify at the three Senate Finance Committee budget hearings this past week, and many were there to talk about education. Students, administrators, teachers, mayors, school board members and taxpayers made the case, over and over, for why we need to overhaul the way we fund our schools.

John Lunn, from Newport, got to the heart of the issue:  “[T]hese aren’t just [Newport’s] kids. These are New Hampshire’s kids. How can we take pride or rightfully call ourselves a state if we don’t collectively watch out for our children?” Along the same lines, Nicole Plourd, Chair of the Berlin School Board testified, “It’s not ok that students in one part of the state get a phenomenal education with lots of resources and our kids get less.  Our kids matter, too. And it’s important for people to realize that children don’t stay where they were born and raised forever…. So how we raise our kids and how we educate our kids matters, and how we educate all kids in New Hampshire matters to all of us.”

Emmett Soldati, who grew up in Somersworth at a time when the high school was facing loss of its accreditation, offered these reflections:

[W]hen I was a kid I kind of assumed that some communities were just naturally poor, that it was meant to be that way, that it was a fact to be accepted.  As an adult I’ve understood as a taxpayer, as a business owner that it was designed that way. That our tax structure kept poor communities poor and left school boards and city councils to compete and fight over scarce resources.  …

Somersworth has no means. We have no lakes, no oceans, no mountains, no tourism to attract wealth and revenue like other communities have.  What we had growing up was a bad reputation, and that bad reputation only served to undermine the property values and further lower and entrench these schools into poverty.  This budget and these resolutions can support changing and reversing course on that.

From Mayor Grenier of Berlin, who described a community “at rope’s end”, to a student from Pittsfield High wishing she could take AP, music, language and extended learning classes like her peers in other towns, the speakers painted a vivid picture of a system that frustrates and discourages students, parents, teachers and taxpayers, and that pits NH towns against one another based on property valuations.  “Adequacy is absolutely inadequate,” lamented John Freeman, Superintendent of the Pittsfield schools, who reported that if his district only relied on adequacy funding, they wouldn’t make it to Christmas.

“Public schools are the canary in the coal mine for New Hampshire communities,” said Frank Sprague, Chair of the Claremont School Board.  “If life support for schools is cut off, the economic health of the entire community is thereby compromised.” Addressing the elephant in the room, John Tobin urged the senators to raise the revenue needed to fund education.  “This is a wealthy state, these are prosperous times, you will never have a better opportunity to solve this.”

What Next?  Pushing the Senate Hard

The Senate Finance Committee will be poring through the House budget to decide which expenditures to accept and what changes to make, while Senate Ways and Means looks for any revenue needed. On the revenue side, it appears that many senators are unsupportive of the House’s capital gains tax idea, and they’re looking at alternative options for funding the expenditures they settle on.  

As to what the Senate will propose for our public schools, there’s discouraging news.  Senate (Democratic) leadership has established its budget priorities, and it’s clear that education funding is not high on their list. Consequently, we’re concerned that the budget coming out of Senate Finance may include significantly less money for school districts than the House budget contains.  

House leadership remains fully committed to the school funding measures – they established school funding as their number one priority at the beginning of the session – so we expect them to vehemently push back against the Senate during budget negotiations. But, of course, it’s difficult to predict how this will play out.

What to do?

1. Push for the independent commission.  If you can reach out to your senator by phone, email or face-to-face meeting, a good tactic at this point would be to stress the need to fund the independent commission to develop a long-term plan for truly adequate school funding. The cost of this measure (at most $500,000) is small compared with the other education provisions, and the need for a commission shouldn’t be lost in the heat of negotiations. In the end, this provision will be the one that has the longest-term impact on schools and taxpayers; it may be the best way to hold lawmakers’ feet to the fire over the real cost of an adequate education.

An independent commission would include legislators as well as stakeholders and would have funds available to bring in experts on issues such as how other states fund their schools, what has worked and what hasn’t, etc.

Some lawmakers argue that they could do just as well with an unfunded committee of legislators, but history proves otherwise.  More than 25 years after the Claremont decision, the disparity in funding between property-wealthy and property-poor districts remains the same, despite the deliberations of prior legislative study committees.   So please impress upon your senator the importance of the independent, funded commission.

2. And keep advocating for the other funding measures passed by the House.  This is not to say that we should give up on the restored stabilization grants and the targeted interim funding measures that are also included in the House budget bill.  By all means, continue to put pressure on senators to include these provisions, in addition to the independent commission.

One way to do this is through a letter to the editor to your local paper and/or to the Concord Monitor or Manchester Union Leader.  It could be powerful to briefly explain the need for these measures and then tell how much your own and/or nearby school districts stand to gain if the House budget prevails. (See this preliminary analysis by the Legislative Budget Assistant.  The two right-hand columns show the predicted gain or loss each school district would experience in Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021 if the House budget bill were enacted.  Just to clarify, the amounts in the two right-hand columns are above and beyond the funding that districts are already slated to receive during those years.) These additional funds will translate into more money for schools and/or reduced property taxes.

Usually letters to the editor are limited to 250 words or less; check your paper’s policy, which should be available on line.  If you have a letter published, please let us know at schoolfundingfairness@gmail.com

In addition, consider organizing a group of constituents and inviting your senator to sit down with you to discuss these issues together,  so you can impress upon him/her the crisis that our schools and communities are facing and the need to find a sustainable solution. If your senator is on the Senate Finance Committee, time is of the essence!  Alternatively, call or email your senator.

Senators’ names and contact information can be found here. Be sure to include in the subject line of an email to your senator that you are a constituent, and include your full name and address in the body of the email.  Likewise, if you speak to your senator on the phone or leave a phone message, identify yourself as a constituent.

If you’d like to contact all members of the Senate Finance Committee as well, you can find their names and contact information by going to this link and scrolling down to Finance Committee.  We’ve found that the option to “email entire committee” doesn’t always work; if it gives you trouble, please click on each senator’s name and email him or her individually.   

If you do contact a senator, we’d love to know what they’re telling constituents.  If you’re comfortable sharing this information, please let us know at schoolfundingfairness@gmail.com.

I want to talk today about courage

Those were the words of Frank Sprague, Chair of the Claremont School Board, at the budget hearing on Tuesday.  “We need courage from both the House and the Senate. The courage to face the fact that additional sources of revenue must be found.  The courage to repair a flawed education funding system that negatively impacts 77% of the students in this state, including an immediate moratorium on stabilization grant cuts. The courage to support constituents rather than bowing to pressure to follow the party line.  And finally the courage to stand up to a governor who is likely to veto this education funding plan.”

Upcoming legislative hearings/sessions

The Senate Finance Committee will meet this week to work on the budget.

  • On Monday, May 13 at 9:00 they’ll review the budget with the Legislative Budget Asst., and throughout the day they’ll hear from various state departments, including a 1:00 session with the Department of Education.
  • On Tuesday afternoon, May 14, at 2:15 they’ll have an executive session on the budget.

These meetings are open to the public, though no public input is taken.  They will be held in the State House, Room 103.

Spread the word!

We believe that as more people understand the flaws in the current education funding system, more pressure will be put on lawmakers to fix them.   If you’d like to have a “School Funding 101” presentation in your community, please send an email to schoolfundingfairness@gmail.com.

The following presentations are currently scheduled:

  • Raymond, May 14 at 6:00 p.m. at Raymond High School, 45 Harriman Hill Road, Raymond, NH
  • North Conway, May 15 at 6:00 p.m. at Kennett High School, Loynd Auditorium, 409 Eagle’s Way, North Conway, NH
  • Sutton, June 19 at 6:00 p.m. at Kearsarge Regional High School, 457 North Road, Sutton, NH

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