By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The Senate Finance Committee Friday approved a new education funding formula that would provide $2.08 billion in state aid for education.
That figure includes the $363 million revenue from the Statewide Education Property Tax, and would be $157 million more than was distributed this fiscal year and within $1 million of what the House approved earlier this year in its proposed budget.
The Senate plan raises the per pupil state aid to $4,100 per student, which is higher than the House’s plan, and spends less on targeted aid than the House plan, but increases per student differential aid amounts for students on the free and reduced lunch program, receiving special education services and English language learners over current levels.
The program targets aid through an extraordinary needs formula to help property poor communities and has a hold harmless provision that will provide every community at least a 4 percent increase over what they received this year, except for communities that collect more through the statewide property tax than they need to cover the basic adequacy grant, or what are known as donor towns.
Since 2011, those communities have been able to retain their excess revenue and not send it to the state as was required from 2000 to 2010.
“This funding formula will better assist schools in improving academic performance for New Hampshire students. They are falling behind in Math, English, and Civics,” said Senate President Jeb Bradley, who proposed the plan to the committee. “We have a responsibility to provide students with the opportunity for a quality education, and we can only do that with a student-centered education funding formula.”
Having been involved with education funding since the Claremont education decision in the legislature since 1999, Bradley said, this plan targets the money where it should go, to the communities that need it most.
He noted some people expressed concerns that some property poor communities do not benefit as much as under the House distribution plan so the hold harmless provision will be bumped from 102 percent of the fiscal 2023 distribution to 104 percent going forward adding $11.5 million to the cost this biennium.
The committee will vote on the change to increase the hold harmless provision from 102 to 104 percent when it meets Tuesday.
Bradley said the plan will reduce property taxes in some communities. “No formula is perfect,” he said, “but there is no statewide property tax increase.”
For example, Claremont currently receives $15.1 million in state aid, and would receive $17.1 million under the House plan, and $15.4 million under the Senate’s.
Similarly, Franklin currently receives $9.7 million, but would have $10.8 million under the House plan, while the Senate provides $9.8 million.
Berlin currently receives $11.1 million, the House provides $12.1 million and the Senate’s is $11.3 million.
Manchester, the largest school district in the state, currently receives $82.2 million, would be allocated $96 million under the House’s plan, and $110 million under the Senate’s.
Rochester currently receives $28.9 million, but would have $32 million under the House’s formula, and $29.5 under the Senate’s.
The Senate plan is essentially halfway between what Gov. Chris Sununu proposed in his budget address in February, which significantly increased the basic per pupil cost, which benefits communities with growing student populations like Windham and Salem, and larger cities and towns, and what the House proposed which had a lower per pupil grant and more money in targeted aid to property poor towns and communities with higher poverty rates.
None of the proposals are likely to satisfy plaintiffs suing the state over its education funding system. One suit is over the cost of an adequate education and another concerns the constitutionality of the statewide property tax.
Education Trust Fund
The Senate earlier undid a change the House made in the Education Trust Fund that reduced the amount of money flowing into the fund but removed special education costs, building aid, and tuition and transportation costs for students attending regional technical centers, instead funding those programs with state general fund money.
The House would have funded the state adequacy and charter school grants, as well as the Education Freedom Account program from the Education Trust Fund.
Using the fund to pay for the education freedom grants is being challenged in another court suit, but a bill changing the statute to include the freedom accounts is making its way through the legislature.
The Education Trust Fund totaled $1.22 billion in fiscal 2022, and $1.06 billion in the current fiscal year, 2023.
The fund has had a fairly large surplus in recent years, although in its early days it had a deficit and general fund money had to cover some of the programs it funded.
Kids in Crisis
The committee spent considerable time on a request for $9.2 million from the Education Department to cover the educational costs of students in mental health crises who are placed in out-of-district treatment centers.
A new program attempts to speed up the process for placing students in crisis rather than have to determine who is responsible for the students’ services.
Currently the Department of Health and Human Services is covering the education costs but the program does not have enough money now to address all the placements, said Rebecca Ross, director of the Bureau of Children’s Behavior Health.
“We will need additional money just to cover costs this year,” she said. “Due to workforce shortages, we have 20 kids now waiting because we can’t get them into places.”
Bradley asked if her agency has been covering the educational costs; she said the agency pays for the whole student and not with education as a separate cost.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said a 14-year-old boy jumped off a bridge to his death last week in Manchester.
He said in the current environment, kids have a lot of emotional challenges, noting social workers are in schools trying to handle the problems.
“If you don’t have the appropriation to deal with it, how does it get dealt with,” D’Allesandro said. “How do we face this issue? To not put funds in (the budget) to take care of these kids does not make sense.”
The committee decided to use money from the Education Trust Fund to pay for the costs.
Both Ross and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said they did not care in which department the money is put, as long as the agencies can work together to help the students when they need it.
The finance committee Friday approved using $20.1 million from the education trust fund to pay for the Winnisquam Regional career and technical education center and the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center.
Safe and Secure
The committee also decided to add $10 million dollars to the Public School Infrastructure Fund which Sununu established with federal pandemic money to increase school safety and security.
The committee will meet again Tuesday at 10 a.m. to try to finish its work on the budget, but has scheduled an 11 a.m. meeting Wednesday if necessary.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.