The following was published in the Concord Monitor as a “My Turn” piece on July 10, 2019.
In the wake of the Governor’s veto of the budget bill, many school districts are reeling. The bill would have given them significant new funding ($138 million across the state), with much of it directed to property-poor or low income communities whose schools and property taxpayers have been pushed to the brink by repeated cuts in state aid. These communities have less valuable property to tax than their property-wealthy counterparts, so they’ve faced a double burden – they must tax themselves at much higher rates, but even with such sacrifices they are unable to spend as much per pupil.
The school funding provisions in the budget would have been a meaningful step toward compliance with the NH Supreme Court’s order 25 years ago in the Claremont case, requiring the State to fully fund a constitutionally adequate education for every NH child and pay for it with taxes assessed at the same rate throughout the state. In addition, the proposed budget would have sent $40 million to cities and towns as municipal aid, to be used as they saw fit.
Where would the money have come from? Not a tax increase, as the Governor claims, but primarily by declining to give large, mostly national corporations like Comcast and Walmart their second business profits tax cut in two years. By vetoing the budget, Governor Sununu has prioritized this second round of tax cuts over equity in educational opportunity for NH kids and property tax relief for homeowners and local businesses.
The Governor’s veto means that schools must now proceed under last year’s budget. The significant new funding that would have been provided had the new budget been signed will be unavailable as school districts make staffing and other decisions for the upcoming school year. To make matters worse, annual 4% cuts to stabilization grants, which would have stopped under the budget bill, will kick in again beginning this very month. These grants go to about two thirds of NH school districts, and the cuts have been the last straw for some of them, requiring elimination of basic programs, staff and even entire buildings. As they tighten their belts one more notch to accommodate another 4% reduction, along with other cuts built into the current funding structure, some districts will move one step closer to collapse.
What does all this mean in dollars and cents? Under the proposed budget plan, Concord would have received $2.2 million in additional school aid and $1.3 million in unrestricted municipal aid over the next two years. Concord could have used these funds to reduce property taxes and/or to enhance programming, upgrade technology or hire needed staff (in the case of school aid) and pay for city services or infrastructure (in the case of municipal aid). Instead, unless and until the budget is otherwise resolved, Concord faces a $367,000 reduction in state education aid in the next biennium. (See Reaching Higher NH’s website for a town-by-town analysis of the impact of the veto). In Concord and approximately 120 other NH towns and cities facing reduced state funding, property tax increases will be needed just to maintain the status quo, and they’ll be traceable directly back to this veto by our “tax cutting” governor.
The proposed budget would have been a lifesaver for a city like Berlin. It just closed its last elementary school and is reluctantly contemplating laying off police officers, fire fighters and a public works employee because property owners can’t continue to absorb the downshifting of school costs by the State. Under the proposed budget, Berlin would have received nearly $4.3 million in new school aid and $477,000 in municipal aid. But until the Governor agrees to sign on, this crucial aid is just a pipe dream, and Berlin faces the nightmare of a further $511,000 cut in state funding for its schools over the next two years.
At an event held two days before the veto, Governor Sununu commented on the education funding provisions in the budget. According to news reports, he complained, “What are we getting for the dollars?… Are we getting better teachers? Are we giving them raises? There were not a whole lot of answers to that other than we’re going to give more money to the system.”
If the Governor had attended any of the budget hearings at the State House this winter and spring, he’d know where the money would go. He would have heard a student report that the only way he can study foreign language at his high school is by using Rosetta Stone. He would have learned that every time a young teacher gets a few years of training and experience in Pittsfield, s/he leaves to teach in a neighboring district that can pay significantly more, and that Claremont has been laying off four or five teachers a year in response to recent state funding cuts. Special ed teachers and paraprofessionals to teach the rising number of students with special needs, counselors to help children of parents grappling with addiction, coordinators to connect students with “Extended Learning Opportunities” outside the walls of the classroom, music and arts programs to foster creativity – it’s not hard to imagine what we’d be “getting for our dollars” if the proposed budget were enacted. Not to mention property tax relief.
It’s no coincidence that per-pupil spending around the state varies enormously (from $12,024 in Manchester to $42,810 in Waterville Valley), given that NH ranks dead last in the nation in terms of state financial support of our schools. The Governor himself has been known to complain that for NH children, zip code determines opportunity. Yet during a legislative session in which a commitment to begin to correct these inequities has been a major focus of lawmakers and citizens, his voice and leadership have been noticeably absent.
Until now. With a stroke of his red veto pen, Governor Sununu is once again pushing down to localities costs that are the State’s responsibility. With his signature, he’s perpetuating a broken and unconstitutional system that disadvantages students because of where they live and requires taxpayers in property-poor communities to pay much higher tax rates to come up with less money per pupil than their neighboring towns and cities.
Public education is an investment in the future of NH’s children and communities, and, in the end, someone has to pay for it. Governor Sununu says it can’t be the large, mostly national corporations that pay the business profits tax, and instead insists on cutting that tax for the second year in a row. His budget veto means that state aid to schools will shrink, and local property owners will be called upon once again to make up the difference. If you are a homeowner or a local business struggling to keep up with ever-rising property taxes, the Governor’s message is clear. Your need for tax relief and your community’s need for meaningful state support for schools are not his concern.
Submitted to the Concord Monitor by Mary Wilke, on behalf of the Kent Street Coalition.