When voters in the Fall Mountain Regional School District head to the polls Tuesday, they’ll be faced with a proposed budget more than $450,000 above the current year’s. It will likely pass. Voters often don’t have any option to lower the budget at the polls. They can pass the offered budget, or settle for a so-called “default” budget that, due to the nonsensical accounting regulations governing budgeting in school districts under the official-ballot system, can be as high — or, frequently, higher — than the proposal that’s up for a vote.
For Fall Mountain this year, voters will consider a proposed budget of $32,885,514. If it fails to pass, a “default” budget of $33,038,043 would take effect. That’s a real problem with New Hampshire school budgeting, but not the worst. And we’re not saying the proposed budget is a bad one; simply that the alternative shouldn’t be an even higher one.
Tuesday’s district warrant is also notable because of a change — implemented by voters at the district’s February deliberative session — in the final warrant article. Instead of asking voters to set aside any surplus funds from the budget, up to $500,000, for capital building projects, it now will ask them to put zero dollars in that account.
That will effectively free any surplus to go toward the following year’s budget — what’s commonly referred to as “returning” the money to taxpayers, though they’ll never actually get it. It will instead simply be folded into a budget that theoretically would then require less from taxpayers because of the offset.
Most years, it would be prudent to set money aside for large capital expenses. In fact, Fall Mountain has been in the habit of doing so, and this year voters will also decide on several projects that would spend up to $155,900 of that money. But though the operating budget proposal didn’t rise a great deal this year, the effect on some taxpayers will be significant. Charlestown taxpayers will see their school taxes go up more than 18 percent; in Alstead, taxes will rise 9 percent.
On the other hand, Walpole and Acworth will see a tax decrease, even with the overall rise in the budget, while Langdon’s rate will remain close to this year’s. And that gets to the heart of the larger issue with New Hampshire school funding.
Without adequate state funding — and remember, most of the funding the state does provide is just local property tax money sent to Concord and redistributed — the vast burden of educating New Hampshire children falls on property taxpayers — who are also paying the way for municipal and county expenses. In wealthy communities, tax rates can be as low as $6.30 per $1,000 of property value (New Castle). In property-poor communities, they can be as high as $40.72 (Claremont).
That disparity leads to far different levels of resources in school systems from one community to the next; and when poorer districts do spend more, the burden can be crushing on taxpayers.
In districts of varying wealth and population, thrown together largely due to geography, that can lead to real battles over funding formulas — who pays more, based on attendance or property values. Such battles have led Charlestown to vote several times to leave Fall Mountain. In fact, the town tried to leave a year ago, but voters in the district overall shot down the idea.
The town’s tax burden is why Terry Spilsbury, a Republican state representative who’s also a member of Charlestown’s planning board and budget committee, sought the amendment calling for any surplus to be put toward next year’s budget. “… It makes no sense to impose upon Charlestown any further hardship than is absolutely necessary,” Spilsbury said.
“It’s just beyond fathomable to think we’re going to collect that amount of money in Charlestown,” added Selectman Albert St. Pierre. “I’ll leave it at that. That’s a lot of money to be raised.”
As we noted, setting aside surplus for capital expenditures may make sense many years, but taxpayers under added stress due to the economic impact of the pandemic could use an additional break this time. School budgets are a variable process. Revenues arise some years and disappear in others. Expenses have to be budgeted for, but may not materialize, such as emergency facilities issues or unexpected special education costs. So there may not even be a surplus for 2021-22. If there is, returning the funds to taxpayers may help in the short term.
In the bigger picture, more certain relief won’t come until the state owns up to its constitutional duty to pay the actual cost of educating students, and in a way that’s fair to taxpayers in all communities.