By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House budget writing committee heard no opposition to maintaining current levels of state aid to school districts at a public hearing Tuesday.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, student enrollment and the method the state uses to determine the number of students who live in poverty are significantly lower than a year ago.
The lower enrollments would result in school districts losing about $90 million in state aid.
House Bill 623 would have the state distribute the same amount of education aid in the next two fiscal years, 2022 and 2023, as it distributes this fiscal year, 2021.
Lawmakers increased state aid to education by $178 million in the biennial budget approved in September 2019 by returning stabilization grants to their original level and providing additional aid to property poor districts and those with a greater number of low-income families.
That additional aid to poor districts was a one-time expenditure, and supporters of the bill urged House Finance Committee members to continue.
Lindseigh Picard, a Winchester School Board member, supported the bill but urged lawmakers to develop a more stable and appropriate education funding system.
She said the constant fluctuation in state aid has impacted the property tax rate in her community by as much as $2 valuation year to year.
“Last year what happened in our local reduction in overall revenue anticipated from the state,” she said, “was nothing short of a revolt by property taxpayers.”
She said the budget was cut by $1.6 million which meant transportation for high school students to the neighboring high school was cut and 23 staff positions were eliminated.
“It is really important not to continue stopgap measures, but develop appropriate funding for us moving forward,” Picard said. “In the interim, I support this bill so in the immediate future we have stability in what funding we expect from the state.”
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, who chaired the Commission to Study School Funding, said the bill deals both with the impacts of the pandemic and retaining the targeted aid to poorer districts the Legislature approved last session.
“This would hold harmless due to the drop in enrollment that is pandemic related that is no fault of the school district,” he said, “and the 25 percent drop in free and reduced lunch that is not the normal course.”
The state uses the number of students on the free and reduced lunch program as an indicator of poverty and increases state aid.
Luneau and others explained that many parents decided to homeschool their students when schools used remote learning and are not anticipated to return to in-school learning until the pandemic subsides.
School adequacy aid is based on average daily attendance based on the number of students in October of the prior school year.
The reduction in the number of free and reduced lunch is not due to having fewer kids on the program, but a federal waiver that essentially opened the program to everyone, not just those meeting income requirements, several people explained.
Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess said while it is great the students are being fed, the parents have no incentive to fill out the paperwork necessary for the state funding increase.
“We’ve gotten about two-thirds of the families to sign up,” he said, “but not all of them. The decline is not based on the number of kids, but on the paperwork.”
Several school officials said the lower enrollment and lunch program numbers are artificial but affect the amount of state aid districts receive in the coming fiscal year as school districts work now to set their budgets.
Barrett Christina of the NH School Board Association said the bill would provide “significant relief to property taxpayers.”
The enrollment and free lunch figures are artificially low, so when student enrollment returns to more normal levels as the pandemic wanes, schools will have more students but less state aid, he noted.
Carl Ladd, executive director of the NH School Administrators Association, said the bill would give school districts time to sort out the pandemic’s effect on school enrollment.
“Unless you hold school districts harmless the next year or two,” he said, “it will be difficult to determine if this is a blip or if it continues.”
Schools need to be able to plan and budget appropriately, Ladd said, and property taxpayers should be able to know what their bills will be going forward.
Others urged the committee to act quickly as school districts act to set budgets for the 2021-2022 school year.
Jeff McLynch of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project said the quicker lawmakers act the better for school districts.
“If you wait until the state budget is passed as a whole, that will not be as effective,” McLynch said. “They have some fluidity to the budget setting process, so acting now is in everyone’s best interest.”
He said without action on the bill, property tax rates would increase — some as high as $4 — to offset the loss of state aid or they will have to make significant reductions in programs.
According to information from the project, Manchester would lose $12 million, Nashua $5.6 million, Rochester $4.3 million, Derry $3.4 million, Claremont $3 million, Berlin and Somersworth $2 million, and Newport $1.2 million.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.