Reliance on property taxes for funding means large differences in experiences and outcomes in New Hampshire schools

A robotics team from Bow High School displays their inventions at a nationwide event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Schools in New Hampshire rely on local property taxes for their funding. That means that some wealthier towns, like Bow, have more resources to pay competitive salaries to teachers and offer more programs like AP courses and electives. But other towns, many of which don’t have high property values, struggle with a lack of funding.

The Concord Monitor compared Bow and Pittsfield, two New Hampshire towns with very different circumstances:

The schools in Bow – an affluent, suburban community bordering Concord – have always enjoyed a sterling reputation for academic success and good pay for educators, where teachers earn on average $63,169 a year.

Twenty miles away, the schools in Pittsfield – a geographically isolated, depressed former mill town – have faced test scores and graduation rates well below average. There, teachers are paid on average $22,000 a year less than Bow. While the district has a contingent of veteran staff, it faces high turnover – sometimes up to 20 percent a year – and a steady churn of young, untried teachers.

“We lost our whole English department last year. It was just me left. So you lost your 7-8 teacher, your 9-10 teacher. And our literacy interventionist – that position was cut,” said 11th and 12th-grade English teacher Jenny Wellington.

New Hampshire’s property-tax dependent way of funding its schools offers plenty of easy, eye-popping contrasts. Compare, for example, scenic Seacoast municipalities who spend thousands above the state average per-pupil, but do so for single-digit property tax rates – while poor, rural centers in Coos County face staggering tax rates while spending far less per student.

A close look at two Capital-area districts, Bow and Pittsfield, underlines the importance of property wealth. But it also emphasizes how other factors – community affluence, size, geography – can influence what resources students have and how well they do…

With wages substantially below the state average teacher pay of $57,522, the district is at a disadvantage when trying to attract the most qualified staff. Only 39 percent of Pittsfield’s teachers have a master’s degree, while 69 percent of Bow’s teachers do.

“Most people leave because of the pay. That is just the fact. When you don’t pay your teachers well, it becomes a training ground for new teachers. And they can get a year or two under their belt, and then they can go to another school,” Wellington said. More importantly, it’s also made a big difference in how long the districts can retain teachers.

For kids, a teacher’s experience is painfully obvious. Here’s Bow junior Jason Howe’s blunt take on it: “The ones that have been here forever are the best. The new ones aren’t as good.”

Colby Wolfe, a junior in Pittsfield, would tend to agree.

“The teachers that come here for a year are just here to get their feet wet and then they move on ’cause either the budget gets ’em or a better job comes up. Like, I don’t want to be mean about that, but it’s happened to a lot of teachers,” he said. (Conversely, those teachers who stuck around often received glowing reviews: “Almost all of the teachers that have been here for a long time – it’s like their passion. This school is their passion,” said Autumn Colon-Pagan, a fellow Pittsfield junior.)

The turnover is also a drag on the teachers that do stay behind – and who say it badly stymies forward progress.

“In your team, you lose somebody, or two people or even three or even four, you’re starting over from scratch trying to catch people up. That’s time, energy spent catching people up – instead of moving forward,” said Pittsfield physical education teacher Rick Anthony.

When Pittsfield’s teachers walk out the door, they don’t just take their newfound expertise. Deciding it would be the best way to create long-term changes with temporary dollars, the district sank the bulk of its grants in professional development…

While Bow has a bevy of in-house offerings, especially at the higher level – a slew of advanced placement classes, electives like engineering and metalsmithing, four foreign languages – Pittsfield relies almost entirely on online classes for AP and dual-enrollment courses.

“I’m an in-class student. Online is not my forte,” Colby said.

Learn more about how the state funds our education system by watching Reaching Higher NH’s webinar, Public Education Funding: A-Z

Source: Teachers, students separated by 20 miles face very different circumstances | Concord Monitor