Though school budget season is still some months away, about 50 Monadnock Region residents gathered at Keene Middle School Thursday night to discuss the way public education is funded in the Granite State.
The informational session and forum was led by Andru Volinsky and John Tobin, two of the attorneys who represented the Claremont School District in a series of lawsuits over the state’s responsibility to fund an “adequate” education in the 1990s. Volinsky, a Democrat from Concord, is also an executive councilor for District 2 up for re-election in November.
The event was sponsored by several local school districts, including Keene School District and its parent entity N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, Monadnock Regional School District, ConVal Regional School District, Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District, Winchester School District and Fall Mountain Regional School District, along with Wilton-Lyndeborough School District, according to Monadnock Superintendent Lisa A. Witte.
Volinsky and Tobin began with a basic explanation of the state’s public education funding system. They noted that more than 70 percent of education costs in New Hampshire are paid for through local property taxes.
They emphasized the wide disparity of property tax rates from district to district, depending on the property valuation in that district. According to their presentation, many area communities fall below the state average for equalized valuation per pupil — a municipality’s equalized valuation divided by the number of students it serves — which sits just below $1 million. Volinsky noted that the Winchester School District has the second-lowest equalized valuation per pupil in the state, at $391,535, surpassing only Berlin.
In comparison, Moultonborough’s equalized valuation per pupil is $6,267,340, according to the presentation. The Moultonborough School District has 474 students, while the Winchester district has 591.
Using Fall Mountain Regional School District, which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole, as an example, the presenters showed how communities within the same district can have vastly different tax rates. In Fall Mountain, they varied in 2016-17 from $12.74 per $1,000 in Acworth, a so-called “property-rich” community, to $23.46 per $1,000 in Charlestown, a community that is “property-poor.”
The presentation also touched on the decline of state stabilization grants, which were instituted in 2011 as a way to address some of the disparity. In 2015, the Legislature voted to phase stabilization aid out over a 25-year period, resulting in an annual loss of 4 percent in each district.
These elements combined, the presenters asserted, mean taxpayers in property-poor districts and communities — which have lower property valuations — must pay more to offer the same level of education as in property-rich areas.
After the presentation, Volinsky and Tobin opened the floor for questions and comments.
A common theme throughout the evening was the need for residents to reach out to their elected officials about the issue. Tobin emphasized that it would take a grassroots movement to force change at the legislative level.
“Let me just be blunt: This system hasn’t changed in 20 years because the people that we all send to Concord have not felt pressure to change it,” Tobin said. “It’s as simple as that.”
One attendee, Patricia Bauries, signaled frustration with a lack of action at the Statehouse. Bauries is a former member of the Monadnock Regional School Board and lived in Swanzey for 40 years before recently moving to Marlborough.
“Fifteen years ago, we talked about the fact that it was an unfair way to educate our children and that it was not only unfair to children, but unsustainable to taxpayers. A comment was made that you can’t just get on the bus and go to Concord and change their minds,” she said. “And in all of the efforts that have taken place throughout those 15 years, the legislative body has gone more and more away from any fairness to either the students or the taxpayers.”
William T. “Tom” Matson, a Troy resident, questioned whether districts can take measures to address the disparities on their own as the Legislature works through the issue. Matson is a former member of the Monadnock Regional School Board, in addition to the Troy Board of Selectmen.
“It seems to me that a county-wide district, spreading the property value among all the towns, makes a lot of sense. And reducing the administrative overhead makes a lot of sense,” Matson said. “And while the Legislature is working on the funding, it seems to me that we should have some means of redistricting.”
Volinsky responded that the concept has been brought up in previous forums held in other districts, but that typically, property-rich districts are hesitant to merge with property-poor communities because of the burden it would place on their taxpayers.
Laura White, a teacher in the Chesterfield School District, which is part of Unit 29, called New Hampshire’s school funding system a “travesty.”
“When I switched from teaching in another town in the area, I received a $10,000 increase in my salary, which brings kind of a moral quandary,” she said. “Why am I being paid $10,000 more to teach children of affluent families who have the resources at home and typically would do better anyway, and children in another town are being taught by teachers who are paid less and they are bringing many more deficits to the school classroom?”
White, along with several other attendees, asked what would be a better model for education funding and questioned why nothing has been done so far.
Volinsky took aim at “the pledge,” an unofficial promise New Hampshire political candidates often make that they won’t consider a broad-based state income or sales tax, and stressed that additional revenue streams — such as an income tax — must be considered.
For many, the lack of such a tax is considered an integral part of the New Hampshire identity and a key draw for businesses.
“The states that do (education funding) well are ones that have multiple funding sources for their schools. It’s kind of like what you would do with any good business,” Volinsky said. “You don’t want a single stream of income because if something happens to that one product line, your business goes south.”
Additional forums on school funding are scheduled in Concord on Oct. 2 and in Rochester on Oct. 10. More information is available at the website of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education at anhpe.org.