As school districts statewide prepare their 2021-22 budgets during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, municipal leaders are urging state officials to consider the outbreak’s impact on school funding.
Keene Mayor George Hansel and Keene Board of Education Chairman George Downing joined more than a dozen colleagues across New Hampshire Thursday in signing a letter to executive and legislative leaders highlighting three areas of financial concern.
“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 community leaders — including mayors and school board chairs from Claremont, Concord, Manchester and Nashua — wrote in the letter.
Specifically, they wrote that public schools are experiencing financial shortfalls caused by a drop in enrollment in free and reduced lunch programs due to waivers that expanded student access to meals during the pandemic; decreases in school enrollment due to COVID-19; and an increase in the rates districts contribute to the state retirement system.
The letter was addressed to Gov. Chris Sununu, Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry.
Sununu, in response to a question about the letter during a news conference Thursday afternoon, said federal coronavirus relief funding specifically set aside for schools, totaling roughly $220 million in New Hampshire, should help districts make up their budget shortages.
According to the letter, fewer families who are eligible for free and reduced lunches have been filling out the forms typically required to receive these meals, largely because federal programs have made free lunches universally available during the pandemic, and because remote and hybrid learning has decreased parents’ interaction with school officials. Moving forward, without those enrollment forms, districts worry they will lose substantial state funding.
“Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of this increased access to food have resulted in the most significant budgetary shortfall facing many school districts across New Hampshire,” the authors of the letter wrote.
Sununu said the state could use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate its school funding formula, which ties a significant portion of school funding to the number of students enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs. In the meantime, though, Sununu said the state is providing cities and school districts with support to get as many eligible families as possible to fill out the forms for these programs, even though that paperwork is not required to receive those meals during the pandemic.
“I got the letter,” Sununu said. “It’s very legitimate concerns on their part, and between the [federal] funding and the state support, I think we can close the gap.”
The coronavirus outbreak also has led to an “unprecedented decrease in enrollment” for districts statewide, the letter states, as many families have opted to homeschool their children or send them to private school until they consider it safe to return to in-person learning in public schools. Baseline state funding for education, known as adequacy aid, is distributed on a per-student basis.
“Districts across the state are concerned that since adequacy aid is based on the enrollment of the previous year, if enrollment numbers increase to a pre-pandemic level, that they will be left educating a significant number of students for which they did not receive adequacy aid,” the letter reads.
Morse said in a written statement Thursday that the state Legislature will consider several education funding bills this year, including proposals that will specifically address enrollment and free and reduced lunch programs.
“The aim of these bills is to assure that our school districts do not lose state funding because of the pandemic,” Morse said. “We will be working with our mayors and school districts as we develop the next state budget.”
During a public hearing Tuesday night on the Keene School District’s 2021-22 budget proposal, school board finance committee Chairman Kris Roberts said that the 5.75 percent school property tax increase in the district’s current budget proposal is driven by a loss of $2.2 million in state funding for next year. He also noted that the district saw an enrollment decrease of 214 students this year, primarily due to COVID-19 concerns, but Keene schools project a rebound of 123 students next year.
Thursday’s letter from school and city officials statewide comes as the future of the state’s education funding formula remains in flux. The N.H. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in September in a lawsuit brought by the ConVal, Monadnock Regional, Winchester and Mascenic Regional school districts, all of which argue the state law that establishes baseline education funding is unconstitutional. The court has yet to issue its ruling in the case.