With lawmakers now in the final phase of crafting the state budget for the next two years, schools around the state are watching the process uneasily. The Legislature is looking, once again, to tweak the formula it uses to send money to local districts.
Under the changes now on the table, three quarters of New Hampshire schools will get less funding from the state starting in the 2016 school year.
To understand why that's the case, let's start with the complicated formula the state uses to determine how much money it is legally required to send schools. The base rate is about $3,500 for each student, but schools get a little more money for students with learning disabilities, and poor students, and students with low reading ability.
This is called "adequacy" funding, after the state Supreme Court’s Claremont ruling that found the state has to fund an adequate education for every New Hampshire student. But given that on average New Hampshire schools actually spend closer to $14,000 a pupil, educators tend to sniff when this is called “adequacy” money.
“It’s just silly to think that in the range of $3,000 to $4,000 that we could provide an adequate education,” says Terri Forsten, the superintendent in Laconia, “That just makes no sense at all; it just does not work.”
Following the recession, critiques like that were muted because, for many towns, huge amounts of federal spending off-set state cuts. But in 2011, as federal stimulus spending was expiring, the New Hampshire Legislature looked for ways to balance the budget. They put a cap on the amount of growth in adequacy payments the state would pay to schools.
Since state funding is largely determined by school enrollment, and the number of students is declining in most of the state, many schools never bumped up against this cap.
But schools that are growing have been getting short-changed.
“I think it’s important to note that this not just the one year occurrence. It’s year after year where the town is not receiving approximately $2.9 to $3 million dollars,” says Winfried Feneberg, superintendent in Windham, one of the fastest growing districts in the state.
He says local taxpayers have been good about picking up much of the slack, but in particular, the funding changes have made it hard to ask them to fund big ticket items, like school renovations. They’ve had to resort to creative solutions.
“Due to the space crunch and the capacity issues at the elementary schools, we’ve actually had to move four 3rd grade classrooms to the high school,” Feneberg explains.
How to Pay for Lifting the Cap?
This year’s legislative changes are aimed at helping districts like Windham – and there are 44 of them that will hit the cap this year.
The House bill repeals the cap in the 2016 school year, and the Senate version does it the following year, which would mean the growing schools would finally get their full state allotment.
Windham’s representative, Republican David Bates, is pushing for the House position, and says he’ll keep pushing. “I don’t want to be responsible for putting a road-block in the way of the state budget passing,” he says, “but I just cannot properly represent my community and allow this cap to remain in place any longer.”
Bates says fully-funding growing schools like those in Windham would cost the state around $11 million. It’s not a huge sum in the grand scheme of the state budget, but it has to come from somewhere.
In both the Senate and the House proposals that money comes, in large part, from schools that are seeing enrollment declines.
Unfortunately, though, shrinking schools have a hard time shrinking their budgets.
“When you take out – say – 20 kids across four grades, there’s no savings for me,” explains Patrick Andrew, superintendent of the Mascoma Valley Regional School District.
Mascoma almost defines "average" for its property wealth and number of students in poverty, and since 2001 it’s lost 17 percent of its student population.
“There’s not a simple way to say, 'OK, let’s cut out a chemistry teacher,' ” Andrew continues, “No, we still want to offer chemistry because you can’t get into UNH or any state school unless you’ve taken chemistry.”
So when state aid declines, schools like Mascoma, just like Windham, have had to rely increasingly on local taxpayers. Mascoma has seen the share of local tax dollars which pay for its budget rise from 57 percent in 2011, to 65 percent this year.
Districts with a high proportion of students in poverty, such as Laconia, have a higher share of their budget paid by state and federal dollars. But even there local property taxes are creeping upward.
That’s because what’s expected of schools like these – such as programing and meals before and after school – has increased too.
“When you look at children living in poverty and the support that they need from dawn to dusk, schools today have a lot more on their plate,” says Forsten.
Under the proposed solutions to pay for lifting the cap, about three-quarters of the districts in the state – the Laconias and Mascomas – would get less.
“What’s Not Addressed Is the Underlying Foundation”
Part of what’s at issue is the complicated formula – the one the 15-year-old Claremont ruling told lawmakers to develop, and says how much money the state needs to send to schools – doesn’t account for certain things.
Like say, the cost of the actual school building itself.
“The cost of the building was not considered because the state had a very good building aid program at the time. But we’re in the sixth year of a moratorium on building aid, which both the House and the Senate propose to continue,” says Dean Michener of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.
He says the bigger questions about how the state funds education still loom: “The problem is, what’s not addressed is the underlying foundation that has to exist in order for that education to be offered.”
When you look at the history of education funding changes in New Hampshire, there are two big drivers. First, cash crunches, and second, lawsuits.
As Rep. Bates points out, where the state is most vulnerable to another lawsuit is in the cap – which he calls arbitrary – on per pupil payments to districts.
“That’s not a promise, that’s an order from the court,” he says, “It’s a very big difference. People are used to legislators not living up to their promises, but what we’re talking about basically is the Legislature perpetuating a policy that is unconstitutional.”
Essentially, what lawmakers are betting on is that the rest of New Hampshire towns – which also increasingly rely on local tax dollars to fund their schools – won’t take their grievances to court.
And it might be a solid bet.
**Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong the name of the superintendent of Mascoma. His name is Patrick Andrew, not David Patrick**