By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Local school and municipal officials believe the current education funding system is broken and want the state’s Education Funding Commission to provide a statewide solution that is creative and does not pit community against community.
The commission sponsored 12 focus groups for elected and appointed municipal and school officials to express their opinions and offer suggestions about education funding.
Participants came from every county except Carroll and were mostly school or select board members and city councilors, said Carrie Portrie of the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
She released their report to the Education Funding Commission on Monday.
The Carsey School has partnered with the commission to offer a public engagement program, NH Listens, as part of the commission’s creation by the legislature last year.
The commission was appropriated $500,000 for research and public engagement expected to result in policy recommendations for the 2021 legislative session.
As the commission moves forward, Portrie said, the members sought and will continue to seek input from experienced school and municipal officials.
The officials generally agree the reliance on the property tax to pay for education is problematic and the system needs to be overhauled, she said, adding they believe another source of revenue is needed to pay for education.
“Many also expressed hope that leaders and decision-makers can think about students across the state rather than focus on individual municipalities,” according to the report.
“There is a need and want among leaders to reduce the adversarial narrative among communities that limits collaboration, and focus on all students’ opportunities in school and positive outcomes.”
The group would like to see the commission find a solution that is collaborative, creative and addresses the inequities across the state due to the reliance on property taxes.
The officials believe “there are disparities and disconnects amongst the income residents earn, property value, continued tax increases and need for affordable housing, and what people think should go into schools,” according to the report.
The officials said the formula complicates fiscal management and creates inequities for residents, staff, and students.
They said there are many variables from community to community such as lakefront property, the amount of commercial buildings versus residential, and the student density that makes the system problematic for many of the state’s communities, causing fiscal instability.
The state’s aging population on a fixed income has to be considered, officials said. “Wealth disparities and limited aide for low-middle incomes creates a dilemma for people who want to retain reasonable costs of living and owning property and funding schools that meet students’ needs,” the officials noted.
“Rearranging the chairs” or “kicking the can down the road” will not be enough, they said.
Municipal and school leaders would like to see the state pay for a greater share of education costs to avoid rising property taxes.
They acknowledged a state-based tax has been opposed in New Hampshire but would still like the commission to explore other revenue options like a sales or tourist tax.
Yet they talked about the need to preserve local schools’ choices on how they spend the funding distributed by the state, and they also talked about the benefits of regional efforts.
Other concerns were teacher salaries and the inability of poorer districts to retain good teachers, who often are hired away by districts able to pay higher salaries.
Teachers are attracted to great schools, they noted, and property values are also tied to school quality. Officials suggested a statewide salary system might be more equitable for communities not able to pay higher salaries.
And they said the cost of an adequate education should include professional development so teachers can keep up with the changing theories and technology with student-centered learning.
Many of the changes are driven by new state and federal standards, the officials noted, and the state and federal governments ought to bear the burden for additional costs associated with the changes.
There is greater emphasis on students’ emotional and social needs in order to achieve higher student outcomes, the officials said.
“Meeting students’ needs and providing an opportunity for an adequate education goes beyond academics right now (e.g., safety and security staff, mental health counselors, paraprofessionals, mentoring and coaching programs, trauma-informed care and teaching, opioid epidemic),” according to the report. “Schools are spending funds on social emotional curricula and writing grants to generate systems of care for families and students. The grants help with initiating structural change and supports, but funding is limited once they need to become part of an annual operating budget.”
School Building Aid
The officials also noted the lack of state funds for school building aid, which prohibits poorer districts from being able to build new, up-to-date facilities.
“Participants felt that there is a need to think about how we can raise funding for schools – look at other states in relation to New Hampshire’s unique revenue structures,” the report notes.
Another concern of officials was the disparity statewide in broadband services, which was highlighted by the pandemic and the move to remote learning for students and work-from-home requirements for many people.
“Districts have found that technology-based curriculum has a huge financial component. For some it can be a burden when balancing other basic needs of school operations,” according to the report. “Participants want to see the state play a role to move technology forward across New Hampshire schools, this includes funding to support this movement.”
Another major concern is special education costs, particularly out-of-district-placements, which can cost upwards of $100,000 or more per student.
If a small district has not budgeted for that expense, but has to comply, that is very disruptive fiscally, the officials noted.
Officials said unfunded state mandates strain local budgets and create distribution problems.
They want commission members and legislators to know every time a new requirement is passed.
“Elected leaders need to know the effects of the bills they pass in Concord and how it affects locals across the state,” according to the report.
The commission’s three working groups will meet again remotely on Aug. 17.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com