Weekly Legislative Update: Monadnock and Winchester join funding lawsuit; education funding gets spotlight at state budget hearing

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The Monadnock School District, which includes the towns of Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, and Winchester joined ConVal in the education funding lawsuit against the state.

“It’s time to take some action to hold New Hampshire accountable for providing an adequate education – to provide the funding for it… We’ve done the waiting and seeing for legislative action,” Monadnock Superintendent Lisa Witte told reporters on Wednesday.

On Friday, the Winchester School District announced that it would join the two districts in their lawsuit. “[W]e’ve waited, and waited, and waited. Until we realized, after twenty years, that the State is still not funding the cost of an adequate education,” the School Board wrote in a press release.

“The Winchester School District agrees with the Contoocook Valley School District that the time is now for real change or witness the slow extinction, one by one, of our local schools with no reduction relief from our property tax. Now is the time for the State to fulfill its promise to our children and to bring relief to the local taxpayers,” the statement continued.

The House Finance subcommittee working on the education bills made some key decisions last week, and the full House had a two-day voting marathon to meet their deadlines on pending legislation.

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Monadnock School District joins ConVal Lawsuit

On Wednesday, the Monadnock School District joined ConVal School District in suing the state over the amount that the state provides for funding education.

The state provides a base adequate education grant of $3,636 per student in 2019, plus differentiated aid for qualifying students. But according to the lawsuit, the cost of an adequate education using the state’s requirements would be $10,843.60 per student in ConVal.

When first calculated, the base adequate education grant included teacher salaries and benefits, transportation, some administration, and some technology. But state law also requires public schools to have school nurses, superintendents, and food services, which isn’t included in the base adequacy amount. And, ConVal argues that the amount provided for teachers, teacher salaries, building maintenance, transportation, and other costs is not realistic for any district in the state.

Lawmakers are working on legislation to increase funding through targeted programs, but none of the current proposals increase the amount for base adequacy grants. Several bills, like HB 678, would have increased base adequacy funding, but were retained in committee earlier in the session in favor of the targeted aid.

“Current proposed legislation and the Governor’s proposed budget for the next biennium do little to provide permanent, guaranteed adequacy,” Witte said in a press release. “While some communities may see temporary relief, there remains no solution to a longstanding, ongoing problem.

Education Funding

A House Finance subcommittee has been working through the major education funding-related bills for the past two weeks and is expected to make recommendations next week. Most of the bills that would increase funding, whether by restoring stabilization grants to their original 2012 levels or increasing funding through targeted aid programs, will be incorporated into the state budget.

The committee is expected to retain the following bills and will incorporate them in an amendment to the state budget:

  • HB 709, which creates two new funding streams for property-poor communities and communities with high concentrations of low-income students
  • HB 686, which instituted a 5% Capital Gains tax for certain individuals and cut the property tax rate for the statewide education property tax. The tax was proposed as a way to pay for additional education funding.
  • HB 177, which restores stabilization grants to their original 2012 levels
  • HB 176, which lifts the moratorium on school building aid
  • HB 184, which funds full-day kindergarten programs at the same rate as other grades, and separates the online lottery game Keno from kindergarten funding
  • HB 551, establishing a commission to study the education funding formula

State Budget

The House Finance Committee held a public hearing on HB 1 and HB 2, which set the state budget for the next 2 years. Hundreds of people testified, which lasted almost 7 hours.

Public education funding was one of the hot topics at the hearing. Berlin superintendent Corinne Cascadden told lawmakers that her city can’t continue down the path it’s on, given the amount that the state provides.

“The city cannot continue to operate its school system without New Hampshire upholding a constitutional responsibility for state aid to education,” she said.

In a series of press conferences on Monday, lawmakers responded to the Governor’s proposed budget. His proposal flat-funds adequate education grants, but provides additional funding for charter schools, special education, and targeted school building aid.

“If you read the governor’s budget, you’d think the problem facing New Hampshire schools is buildings and infrastructure,” Senator Jay Kahn said at a news conference at Keene City Hall Monday morning. “And while buildings and infrastructure are important … the biggest priority is retaining and attracting classroom teachers, and supporting staff.”

Senator Cindy Rosenwald also responded, saying the state’s schools are in “crisis.”

“Because of budget shortages, schools across New Hampshire are struggling to recruit and keep talented teachers — and there are far too many layoffs,” Sen. Cindy Rosenwald said at the We Support Education Rally on Library Hill in Nashua, according to the Union Leader. “Again, the reality is that schools in New Hampshire are in crisis.”

“While New Hampshire consistently ranks among the top 10 states in education spending, Governor Sununu is open to adjusting education funding if the legislature is able to do so in a fiscally responsible way that does not raise taxes,” Sununu’s communications director, Ben Vihstadt, wrote in a statement to The Keene Sentinel.

The House Finance Committee is working on a series of amendments to the state budget that incorporate the targeted aid for the state’s most vulnerable communities, while adding an Interest and Dividends Tax to pay for the aid package.

The House must act on the budget bills by April 11, when they send it over to the Senate.

Learn Everywhere

At the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting last week, Chairman Drew Cline gave the Board an update on the progress that the Department is making on the proposed Learn Everywhere rules.

Cline told the Board that the Department was scheduled to “work through” issues with the rules at an invitation-only stakeholder meeting on Monday, March 18 for feedback.

According to State Board of Education Chairman Drew Cline, the Department anticipated a lot of input and expected to make changes to the proposed rules based on the feedback from the hearing. He said that one of the rule changes would be limiting the number of credits students can receive through Learn Everywhere.

“We heard a lot of feedback from people about the possibility of doing all or most of your high school coursework through Learn Everywhere, and that was not the intent,” he told the Board.

Board members expressed their concern with the rules and how the program might widen the equity gap, especially if programs charge fees for participation and don’t provide transportation.

But Cline said that the rules could present organizations with the opportunity to create a new “market” for offering academics, with a “tiered structure” for low-income students.

“You have these programs in Manchester, and out there, and if you have the opportunity to get those credits, you would create a market for that. You would create opportunities. The Boys and Girls Club has said they would come and do this,” responded Cline.

“I think you will see a tiered structure where they’d offer low income kids tuition-free opportunities. A lot of these organizations already do that–the YMCA has sliding scales… and I think you’re going to see more of that,” he continued.

A committee is working on updates to the rules and will not release the draft proposal.According to the Department, the updated rules are not being released to the public until they are finalized and presented to the State Board of Education, which is expected to be in May or June.

State Board members are still accepting public comment on the proposed rules and Learn Everywhere program.

School Data

Last week, the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee recommended passing an amended version of SB 267, which requires the Department of Education to provide testing companies with student names and identifiers in order to track students’ academic growth from year to year.

At the public hearing, Sandie MacDonald, Administrator for the Bureau of Instructional Support and Student Assessment at the Department of Education, told the committee that parents currently receive test scores for a single year.

But with the new permissions in the bill, parents could receive trend reports of how their children do over time. Having the data also allows the Department of Education to send test results directly to parents, instead of having the information disseminated at the school level.

An amendment to the bill makes data privacy violations a class B felony.

Student Safety

Last week, the Senate passed SB 282, which requires each school district to develop a policy that guides the development and implementation of a coordinated plan to prevent, assess the risk of, intervene in, and respond to suicide.

During the public hearing, parents, students, pediatricians, and behavioral health professionals testified in support of the bill and its urgency. Kenneth Norton of the National Alliance on Mental Illness testified that, according to a 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 28 percent of New Hampshire high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for 2 or more weeks, and 16 percent have seriously considered suicide.

The bill requires faculty, staff, and volunteers to be trained in youth suicide risk factors, warning signs, protective factors, response procedures, referrals, post-intervention, and resources available within the school and community. It also requires educating students in recognizing risk factors and warning signs of mental disorders and suicide, and providing help-seeking strategies, including how to engage school resources and refer friends for help.

The Senate voted against SB 199, which would require teachers to have training in suicide and bullying awareness and prevention, in favor of SB 282.

Next Week

House Finance subcommittees will continue to hold work sessions on the state budget. On Wednesday, March 27, House Finance will hold an executive session on the following bills:

  • HB 177, which restores stabilization grants to their original 2012 levels
  • HB 551, establishing a commission to study the education funding formula
  • HB 686, which institutes a 5% Capital Gains tax for certain individuals and cuts the property tax rate for the statewide education property tax. The tax was proposed as a way to pay for additional education funding.
  • HB 709, which creates two new funding streams for property-poor communities and communities with high concentrations of low-income students

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hold an executive session on HB 564, which bans firearms in safe school zones, on Wednesday, March 27 at 10 AM in LOB 204.

On Thursday, March 28, the Senate will vote on:

  • SB 267, which requires the Department of Education to provide testing companies with student names and identifiers in order to track students’ academic growth from year to year
  • SB 266, which funds kindergarten at the same rate as other grades and designates revenues from the lottery game Keno to the school building aid fund
  • SB 318, which extends the education tax credit program to donations to public schools and Career and Technical Education Centers

Have questions? Email us at staff@reachinghighernh.org and we will forward it to the appropriate team member!