What do schools spend their money on?
Books, teacher salaries, computers, and then there’s the building itself, often the single most expensive investment in public education a community will make.
But in New Hampshire, a program that has helped school districts pay for those projects for more than half a century has been on an indefinite pause for nearly a decade.
That’s caused uncertainty, particularly in poor communities with aging and out-of-date schools.
Morning Edition host Rick Ganley traveled to one such district in the northwest corner of the state to see how schools officials there are dealing with the issue.
Walking up to the entrance of Woodsville High School, the aging brick façade is the first sign this is a building that goes back a ways. Then there’s the creaky wooden stairs that greets visitors at the main entrance.
"This original part of the building was built in 1890, the 1890s," says Superintendent Laurie Melanson, walking into the building's foyer.
Just for some historical context, 1890 is the same year Benjamin Harrison was president and Idaho and Wyoming had just become states.
Woodsville High School serves about 250 students from Haverhill and surrounding towns. Melanson walks me around to highlight some of the problems that come with a building this old.
We make our way – single-file – up a narrow, wooden staircase to the band room, where David Heintz is preparing for class. He's been teaching music here for 30 years, so he’s familiar with the building’s quirks.
"All of our instruments when we get ready to perform in concert have to go down through that door, down the narrow stairway with a twist in it, which is really hard on the equipment and hard on the students carrying them up and down."
But, more importantly, he says there’s no way for disabled students to get to his class.
"So no elevators, not handicapped accessible. Other than that, with the wooden floors, the sound up here is actually OK."
There are plans to fix all this. The district's proposed project would tackle a host of major problems, including fixing leaky, corroded pipes and addressing a lack of space. Also, the music class would move to a room in a new area connecting the main building and the community building, which houses the gym and cafeteria.
Total costs aren’t yet finalized, but including renovations, estimates are as high as $10 million. But there’s a hold up. The state’s School Building Aid program – which would have paid for a large chunk of this project just a few years ago – has been suspended since 2010.
And without that guaranteed support, Haverhill Cooperative School Board chair Richard Guy says getting local approval is all but impossible.
"What we'd like to do is remedy all the problems with a project, take a bond out, and we need financial help to make that work."
The idea of closing the school has been floated, but Guy says that would raise other issues."You don't want to lose your town school, the identity of the town," he said.
And as for the logistics if this rural corner of northwest New Hampshire didn't have its own high school?
"That's a question I don't know that I could answer. If we didn't have a high school, they could go to Plymouth. But it's already a long ride to here for many students, over 20 miles."
There have been additions and minor repairs to the building over the years, but Guy says the school is due for a major overhaul.
"We're going to have to put an elevator system in to get to the upper floors. The list grows, and we feel like we're just putting patches on old structures."
While state lawmakers have discussed reviving the program for years, Haverhill is among dozens of school districts across the state in this limbo.
"Well, can you imagine having anything that you own that’s an asset of yours and neglecting it. I think that’s what it comes down to," says Amy Clark, who manages the School Building Aid program for the state Department of Education.
In her Concord office, she shows me an informal list of more than 70 school building projects in the pipeline.
"And right now, I have about $650 million worth of school construction or reconstruction projects on our list," she says.
And without at least some support from the state, she warns that list will only get longer.
"Whether we have declining enrollment or not, those schools still need maintenance and repair," Clark said.
Just prior to the moratorium being imposed, the annual cost of the program had grown to nearly $50 million; that included money for new projects as well as debt owed on completed ones.
In 2009, lawmakers chose to bond their payments, borrowing money and adding to the program’s debt (changes to state law now ban that practice).
Now, the state still owes nearly $300 million for old school projects, many that were finished years or even decades ago.
Amy Clark says lawmakers have since approved several changes to the program, including an annual cap of $50 million, but because of prior obligations, only a fraction will be available for new construction.
"And so now I have $15 million for new projects if building aid is funded, which is a big if."
The state is also limiting its debt obligations by changing the way it will provide aid to districts. Instead of contributing to long-term bonds, the state will provide its grant in two payments: 80 percent up front and the rest upon completion.
And there's a new scoring rubric that takes into account things like safety and code violations, overcrowding, and how poor a district is.
Hinsdale is the only school district that submitted an application in time to be in line for aid this year if the program comes back.
Wayne Woolridge is superintendent of the Hinsdale School District.
"There’s no doubt we have the need, no doubt that it’s a life safety issue primarily, no doubt that it would remedy a real problem," he said.
The town’s $1.5 million dollar project would expand Hinsdale Elementary School, addressing fire code violations that came to light back in 2012. (Read the Hinsdale School District's school building aid application here).
Hinsdale is in line for a state grant that would cover 60 percent of the project’s eligible costs, the maximum available through the building aid program.
Woolridge says the project will be on the ballot this spring, but is contingent on getting that support from the state.
"If there’s any sense that school building aid is something that means anything to our government, I think this is definitely a test case that should be pretty easy to move forward."
And there will be a host of other projects on town meeting ballots this spring that – if passed by voters – will be eligible for aid in 2018.
Hampton voters will be asked to approve a $26 million renovation of Hampton Academy; and in Newmarket, officials are hoping to pass a $39 million school project.
Back at Woodsville High, there’s agreement the aging facility poses obstacles to students and teachers.
Still, Principal Eric Chase pushes back on the idea that students here are getting shortchanged.
"We’re running something like 70 different AP or honors classes. We’ve got 15 Running Start courses where the students can get college credit for it. What’s going on here educationally is outstanding. It’s just going on in an aged building."
For school building aid advocates, there’s reason to be optimistic.
Republican Governor-elect Chris Sununu said during the campaign, including during the final debate on WMUR, the issue is a top priority.
"We absolutely have to restore school building aid funding. I have a fifth and a sixth grader. I’m in my kids’ classrooms. And when you go into a classroom and let’s call it a negative atmosphere – where the windows are painted shut, where the hallways are dimly lit – that’s not a viable education environment for anybody."
Now, all eyes will be on Concord as lawmakers decide whether to reinstate the program in the upcoming legislative session.