School districts across the state are expecting much-reduced state aid for next year, after some districts had a big dip in student population due to skyrocketing homeschool numbers, triggering a decrease in revenue and increase in local taxes. State representatives are seeking to put forth a bill to avoid that fate for their towns.
School districts receive state aid based on a number of factors. One of the largest is their student population, for which schools are given a flat rate based on the number of students in their school daily. Schools receive additional aid for students in certain categories, such as those who need food assistance.
In a recent interview with the Ledger-Transcript, District 10 State Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, said many schools were hit twice — once due to changes in student population, and again for other state aid related to students who receive free and reduced lunch, fall below the state’s reading proficiency, or who have English as a second language. A proposed bill co-sponsored by Kahn would take the higher enrollment numbers from this year and last year and use those to calculate aid.
“This bill aims to stabilize schools and hold them harmless for enrollment changes that are really due to the pandemic,” Kahn said. “It’s a one-year bill that hopefully the Legislature will take up.”
School districts have been asking for intervention in this area.
The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative, ConVal and Mascenic School Districts all reported significant increases in students homeschooling this year.
Programs meant to assist school districts have also had an impact. Nationwide, there was a waiver to expand access to free and reduced lunch for students to make sure that students in need could receive school meals. Enrollment in districts’ free and reduced lunch programs dropped as a result of automatic coverage — which in turn reduced state aid based on those numbers.
But, Kahn said, it’s likely that the need and eligibility of local families for those programs have gone up in the past year, not down, and those numbers are artificially depressed due to the accessibility of free food options being provided by the school or elsewhere in the community.
In 2022, Jaffrey is expected to receive $358,239 less in adequacy aid, and Rindge $611,713 less.
ConVal expects about $345,000 less in revenue from state aid. For Mascenic Regional School District, the difference is more than $530,000.
These are significant numbers for small towns to make up. While districts aren’t proposing big jumps in budgets, the loss of revenue will still have to be made up by taxpayers, causing a jump in the tax rate.
Mascenic Superintendent Chris Martin said it’s an issue the district has been struggling with throughout the budget process, and schools were desperate for a solution — especially, she said, as many of the students homeschooling this year are expected eventually to return to public education once the pandemic has subsided. She said that “many” of the parents whose children had previously attended school in person who notified her that their children would be homeschooled for the 2020-21 year informed her that they would return to school if the situation returned to normal.
Martin said she expects the “lion’s share” of those first-time homeschoolers to return to the district. A few, she said, recently rejoined the district when schools reopened for in-person learning on Jan. 19 either four or five days a week. It is difficult for the district to make up the funding difference by cutting staff or programming when student enrollment is expected to stabilize next year.
“If I can get back that adequacy aid, that would help tremendously,” Martin said.
Districts across the state have expressed a similar sentiment. A letter to Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, Gov. Chris Sununu, N.H. Senate President Chuck Morse and House Speaker Sherman Packard, and representatives of 11 New Hampshire cities and towns expressed similar sentiments.
The letter, signed by school board chairs and mayors from Berlin, Claremont, Concord, Dover, Keene, Laconia, Manchester, Nashua, Portsmouth, Rochester and Somersworth, expressed the same funding concerns voiced by local districts.
For example, in Manchester, more than half of students received free and reduced lunch last year. But when COVID-19 forced schools to enter remote-learning models, Manchester implemented a program for every student to receive a free school lunch, whether or not the family had filled out the form for free and reduced lunch.
As of Oct. 31, Manchester students who had applied for the free and reduced lunch program had dropped by more than 10 percent — which would result in a reduction of $3.6 million in state aid. Similarly, Berlin is expecting about $316,000 less compared to last year.
“An accessible and properly funded public education is critical for the children of New Hampshire, and right now, our schools are communicating significant concerns,” the letter reads. “We hope that the Department of Education, Executive and Legislature takes into account these anticipated revenue shortfalls as they are allocating funding, particularly as it relates to COVID-19 and adequacy funding for the 2021/2022 school year.”
This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.