Support Widespread for Changing Education Funding System

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Rep. Jonah Wheeler, D-Peterborough, talks to the House Education Committee Wednesday about his bill to increase school adequacy grants from $4,100 per pupil to $10,000.


CONCORD — The state needs to step up and begin addressing recent and past court decisions on its unconstitutional education funding system, the House Education Committee was told Wednesday.

The committee heard six bills that all address some phase of education funding from overhauling the system to the state contributing an additional $650 million.

Several of the bills were responses to the two education funding superior court rulings issued in November finding the current system unconstitutional in two ways, using local property tax money to fund the bulk of education costs with widely varying property tax rates, and the current methodology of collecting the statewide education property tax.

Another bill would significantly increase state aid for special education students, whose numbers have been growing since the COVID pandemic.

Almost everyone appearing before the committee said school districts are struggling to provide students with the programs they need while taxpayers can no longer afford their property taxes.

Thomas Oppel, chair of the Canaan Economic Development Committee, said public schools need help and so do property taxpayers.

He said the town seeks to increase economic development to take some of the burden off homeowners, with about one-third living below the poverty line.

“From the founding of our nation, the talk has been about the importance of public education as a unifier,” Oppel said, “and where you teach people to be citizens.”
Schools are a matter of community pride, he said, and critical to economic development and democracy.

“But what is happening in Canaan is property taxpayers are  beginning  to resent the money spent on public education because it is the biggest rate on their tax bills,” Oppel said, “and that is a dangerous path to go down.”
No one testifying said less money should be spent on public education, but a number of school superintendents, educators, advocates and parents said more state aid is needed to help property poor communities who really struggle.

David Trumble of Weare said the poorer districts in the state are choosing every day whether to fix the roof or hire a reading teacher.

“The choices made in this state every day,” Trumble said “end up on the backs of our children.”

Superintendents from Dover and Manchester told of their challenges to give their children the education they need, and superintendents from the smaller towns of Plainfield, Cornish and Warren laid out their special challenges as well as struggling to balance a good education with property taxpayers.

Sydney Leggett, superintendent of Plainfield and Cornish, said a small increase in the districts’ budgets has a larger impact on the towns’ tax rates.

“There is an extreme burden in small districts on local property taxpayers as we try to do what we can for academic achievement and learning recovery,” she said.

Sean Parr of the Manchester Board of School Committee said the recent court rulings indicate it is time for the state to change the state’s adequate education system along with the need for additional funding.

He said the state’s average per pupil cost is about $20,000 while Manchester spends about $15,000 per student.

Any change in the system needs to fund the districts with the greatest need and fully fund an adequate education, Parr said.

He said the city faces significant challenges from special education costs which range between $35,000 to $50,000 per student, and those costs have skyrocketed as have transportation costs.

The state needs an education system that helps communities with the greatest needs and the lowest capacity, Parr said, “so all the children have an opportunity for a constitutional adequate education.”

Among the bills before the committee was House Bill 1583, which would raise the basic, per pupil adequacy grant from the current $4,100 to $10,000 costing about $650 million annually.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jonah Wheeler, D-Peterborough, said the figure is about what Conval school district superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders determined to be the cost of an adequate education without such things as food service and school nurses which schools need to function.

The Conval lawsuit decision called those numbers about right, although Judge David Ruoff reduced his estimate for the minimum to about $7,400 per pupil.

“We need to increase what we invest in our students, what we invest in their education, and what we invest in our state’s future” said Wheeler, a graduate of Conval, “It is clear $4,100 is not adequate to fund them.”

House Bill 1686 would change the way the statewide education property tax is administered and would follow the inadequacies Ruoff found in the current system that makes it unconstitutional.

The bill would require property wealthy communities that raise more money than they need to pay for their students’ adequate education to send the excess money to the state Education Trust Fund as the original school funding system approved after the first two Claremont education Supreme Court decisions did.

Currently those communities retain the money and spend it as they see fit on education, in effect lowering the rate they pay for the statewide education property tax.

The bill would also prohibit the Department of Revenue Administration from setting negative tax rates for very small communities with few or no students to offset what they would have to pay for the statewide tax.

The issues account for about $25 million of the $363 million collected under the tax.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, said the money does not belong to the town as it is paid by property owners. “It was raised to meet education expenses and should go back into the pot and for purposes we in the legislature said it should be used for,” she said.

The bill was opposed by Mark Decoteau, the chair of the Coalition Communities 2.0, a group of 27 property wealthy communities who would lose millions of dollars they retain the statewide property tax if the bill passes.

He called the bill “an unfair solution to fund education that has been tried before and will be as disruptive as 20 years ago when donor towns were first created.”
He said it pits town against town and creates winners and losers all across the state.

Committee member Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, pushed Decoteau when he said his organization would work with those seeking a solution to the funding issue and Decoteau said the group would work with others to find a solution not based on property taxes.

Attorney Andru Volinsky, the lead attorney on the original Claremont suit, said he was happy to hear the group was willing to back a sales or income tax or some other resource to fund education, because in all the years this group and the one before it never made one suggestion or indicated they were willing to help find a solution.

He said without changing the way the statewide property tax is administered, the towns that retain money spend it on things not approved by the legislature for educational purposes like a turf football field. 

Volinsky suggested the money could be used to beef up the current low to moderate income homeowners assistance program intended to help people who cannot afford their property taxes.

House Bill 1586 would overhaul the current education funding system with a new program that establishes a minimum investment from local communities with the state providing additional money so poor districts would be able to offer students an opportunity for an adequate education.

The plan was developed by consultants to the 2020 Education Funding Commission and also changed the way an adequate education is determined. 

The new system would be based on student performance and not what is needed to make the system function.

An adequate education would be the state’s average student performance in several categories like assessment tests and graduation rates.

The plan would use a higher statewide property tax to fund much of the program.

Luneau, the bill’s prime sponsor, who chaired the funding commission, called the bill a significant departure from how schools are funded now, but said it addresses the four fundamentals of the first Claremont decision: to define an adequate education, to determine what it costs, to fund it and to provide accountability.

He said the proposal does not require a new funding source to work. The consultants found sufficient money is spent on public education in New Hampshire, although the distribution of the money needs to be targeted more to the district needing the greatest help.

Volinsky opposed the bill saying it would be unconstitutional because it does not have the state pay for it, and does not adequately define what constitutes an adequate education.

He said numerous court decisions on education funding in New Hampshire say the state has to pay the full cost of an adequate education.

New Hampshire has one of the highest standards for education protection in the country, Volinsky said, because it marries the rights of students with those of taxpayers.

“Access to high quality public education is a critical component of our democratic values,” Volinsky said. “Without a strong statewide, sustainable system of public education we risk losing our democracy.”

Bill Ardinger, also an education funding commission member, defended the proposal for a new education funding system.

“This focuses on the assessment of needs of various districts and focuses funding on the districts with the greatest need,” he said. “The obligation under Claremont is to support and ensure and guarantee that every child in the state gets a shot at a good education regardless of where he lives.”

Ardinger said the proposal focuses the need on the districts and not on a standard uniform grant for each student.

House Bill 1656 would increase the special education grant from the current $2,100 per student to $27,000 which supporters said is close to the average cost of services for a special education student above the state average cost of educating one student.

A number of special education educators said the number of students receiving these services is growing and state and federal aid have not changed in a long time.

The committee also reviewed House Bill 1675 which would reduce state aid to districts that continually perform poorly on assessment tests, but it had much opposition.

And House Bill 1555 also had a hearing and concerns special school district meetings when budgets change.

A subcommittee meets Thursday on four of the bills — House Bills 1583, 1656, 1586 and 1686  — all dealing with education funding.  

A bipartisan group of Education members as well as two members each from House Finance and House Ways and Means will work on the bills and see if a plan can be developed that could go before the House this session.

Garry Rayno may be reached

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