Budget Cuts Could Sever a Lifeline for High School Students in Claremont

Jan 31, 2018

As part of our series “The Balance," we’re asking for your input on the costs and benefits of living in New Hampshire. One issue we’re hearing a lot about is property taxes, which provide the bulk of money for public schools. The city of Claremont has the highest property tax rate in the state. This year, some residents there are saying ‘enough is enough," and the school board is taking a hard look at its budget. It’s also raised a conversation about the role schools should play in students' lives.

 NHPR’s Britta Greene spent some time in Claremont to learn more. 

At 17 years old, Emily Putnam is the kind the kid who seems to have everything together, both in school and outside. She’s got a plan for college, and she’s already pretty independent. She saved up and bought her own car, pays her phone bill and insurance with a job as a teller at a local bank.  

In school, she’s so comfortable with adults, it’s almost like she’s on staff. Teachers greet her warmly in their classrooms.

It’s easy to get the sense school has been a breeze for Putnam. But that's not the case. In fact, if it weren’t for one person in particular at Claremont’s Stevens High, she thinks things would have turned out much differently.

“I don’t think I would have been able to make it through,” she said. “Just having her presence, knowing that there was someone to go to, it helped me so much.”

Emily Putnam is a senior at Stevens High, on track to graduate this spring. “I don’t think I would have been able to make it through," she said, without the help of the crisis counselor.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

The person she’s referring to is Ashley Miller. Miller’s in her fourth year working at Stevens as what’s known as a ‘crisis counselor.’

Her title is a bit of a misnomer; her role isn't limited to managing immediate student crises, but is instead a much broader mental health counseling position.

In fact, her first year, she saw more than a third of the student body, she said. At that point, she started making a list of the different needs she was seeing.

That list included anger management, anxiety, depression, abuse, neglect, relationship challenges, and more.

“Often, I think the perception is that - oh, these kids are fine,” she said. “And often that’s not the case. They just don’t know who to talk to about it.”

Miller’s office is on the school’s second floor. It’s small and sparsely decorated, but when I visit, the white board on the wall is scattered with handwritten messages from students. One is a giant sad face, drawn lopsided with red marker.

Others say things like this: “Ashley, don’t go!” Or, “We don’t need a hospital or cops. We just need a safe place to go and someone to talk to.”

The messages speak to a current debate in town around cuts to the school budget. What Miller’s students know is it’s looking likely that Miller will lose her job. 

Messages from students decorate the white board in Ashley Miller's office.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

City residents still have to approve the cuts later this year, but the school board has already voted, queuing up the elimination of several positions at the high school. Miller’s job is one of those on the line.  

“I am nervous for what that would look like for the kids,” she said, adding she fears students like Putnam who don’t rise to the level of needing psychiatric hospitalization could quickly fall through the cracks.

The challenges facing Stevens are not unique to Claremont. Districts across the state have been struggling to meet student mental health demands in recent years.

In a 2015 survey, one in five Stevens High students reported witnessing domestic violence at home. Almost 40 percent said they live with someone with an alcohol or drug problem. 

“We have students who will shake uncontrollably. They have eating disorders, they’re not sleeping at night,” Stevens Principal Pat Barry said. “They’re self-medicating.”

Schools are feeling the burden of providing social services for these students.  

“Like it or not, agree with it or not, it is the role of public schools today,” she said. “And when people say the city, the town, the state should be taking on these responsibilities - great, wonderful, but it’s not happening.”

Still, it’s one thing to want to support students with more than just academics, but it’s another thing to pay for it, especially in an area with high need. Another local statistic many Claremont residents know well has to do with taxes. The city has the highest property tax rate in the state, a rate some say has become unaffordable. (Click here to see a map of tax rates in New Hampshire towns.)

With no relief in sight in terms of more state money, some school board members say it’s time to take responsibility locally and keep their bills in check. The district needs to be realistic about what the schools can really be expected to do, said Vice Chair Chris Irish.

“I don’t believe we’re educating kids anymore. I believe we’re raising them. And I don’t think that was the intent of school districts,” he said. “When did it become the school’s responsibility to solve all of society's ills?”

Claremont residents have another chance to weigh in on the school budget at a deliberative session in February. After that, it’ll go to vote this spring.