Foster’s Daily Dem: School building aid is part of state’s obligation to a quality public education

The Foster’s Daily Democrat Editorial Board urged legislators to lift the moratorium on school building aid, citing the growing number of schools in dire need of repair and upgrades. The program, implemented in the 1950’s, has been frozen for almost a decade, forcing towns to either raise all of the funds themselves or pass up repairs to everything from roofs to air quality systems. 

Here’s the full editorial:

The time has come for the New Hampshire Legislature to end the nine-year moratorium on school building aid.

Many communities across the state could benefit from resumption of state support for renovating or replacing aging schools. Providing targeted assistance to communities with the greatest need and most limited financial abilities is the best way to assure a program instituted in the 1950s does what it was intended to do.

Newmarket is a prime example as voters in March will be asked to approve a $39 million plan to renovate and expand its elementary and junior-high schools. Other Seacoast towns have school improvement plans headed to voters next month including Hampton with its junior high school and Hampton Falls with its grade school.

State building aid is part of the state’s obligation to provide a quality public education. While the moratorium was necessary during the Great Recession, better times have returned and the state has the revenue to restore this critical investment, which relieves some of the financial burden on towns and cities to assure a 21st century educational environment.

School building aid should be a top priority for lawmakers this session. Lawmakers should be ready to restore the investment given reforms to the program that prioritize safety needs, create safeguards to assure communities with the greatest need receive the most assistance and that costs are contained so as to not bankrupt the program.

Gov. Chris Sununu in presenting his budget plan spoke to the need to use some of the state’s surplus revenue to help towns repair their infrastructure. This is critical to assure a proper, well-rounded role of state government and quality schools must be atop that list.

Senate Bill 192 would lift the school building aid moratorium and put $50 million per year into the fund. It will not match pent up demand for state funding, especially as the state has existing obligations for past projects and a current annual payment of about $35 million known as the program’s “tail,” but it is an appropriate start. The sum gradually declines to less than $1 million in Fiscal Year 2040 as school bonds are retired.

There will also be consideration of schools approved during the moratorium including Dover’s high school.

Several lawmakers co-sponsored the bill including Sens. Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth and David Watters of Dover, and Reps. Michael Cahill and Ellen Read, both of Newmarket. It will be up to the sponsoring lawmakers and others who believe in investing in public primary education to make sure restoration of school building aid isn’t given a back seat to other needs. Few things have waited longer for renewed state investment than the building aid program and New Hampshire’s K-12 public schools lay the foundation not only for success of the university system but the workforce beyond that.

It is hard to find an investment in infrastructure that doesn’t provide a measureable dividend. There are many competing interests for funds in Sununu’s proposed $12.1 billion biennium budget, which is roughly $800 million more than the previous 2-year spending plan. However, investing in modern school buildings meets the obligation to guarantee an adequate education and the state will receive monetary returns directly via real estate transfer taxes on the sale of homes with increased property values. Modern schools, without crushing local property taxpayers, will help communities assure they attract and retain the best teachers. Together this will help expand the number of well-educated youth who will become the future workforce in a state facing a rapidly aging one.

Prosperity has returned to New Hampshire, school building aid is an obligation, and lawmakers must not let the moratorium linger any longer.

Right now, there’s about $650 million in potential projects that could be funded. Some schools, like Hinsdale Elementary School, are in such bad shape that students can’t go on the second floor, where the library and nurse’s office are. Newmarket has to split it’s two hours worth of lunchtime into six periods (plus the cleanup time in between). Other towns have buildings that are over 50 years old and have never had repairs, until now.

SB 192, as mentioned in the editorial, lifts the moratorium and would put $50 million per year into the fund. New rules enacted in 2013 mean that projects are funded up front–towns are given 80% of the project costs at the beginning, and 20% upon completion–so towns (and the state) don’t have to take out loans or bonds to finance the renovations. And, there’s a new system in place that funds towns based on need and severity of project. The bill is currently in the Senate Education Committee and will move to the full chamber once the committee has voted on it.

Read the full editorial here.