Community on the brink: Idyllic New Hampshire town beset by school budget battles

by Sarah Earle

Photo from the Hopkinton NH School District website.

Roots run deep in the small town of Hopkinton, a rural community just west of New Hampshire’s capital. Many residents can trace their lineage back several generations, and though young people routinely leave for more populous locales, they often come back. Even newcomers tend to have connections of one sort or another. 

Along with its bucolic charm and vibrant civic life, Hopkinton is known for its schools. Talk to enough people, and you’ll almost certainly hear the phrase, “we moved here for the schools.” 

The community has a proud tradition of investing generously in its young people.

But the past few years have brought escalating budget tensions to the idyllic town, as residents wrestle with growing costs and shrinking state revenues.

This spring, the problems came to a head, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the town to cancel its traditional school district meeting and conduct a drive-through meeting instead. With record crowds turning out to vote on May 17, the operating budget was defeated 786 to 617. A second meeting on May 30 delivered the budget another defeat.

The ensuing weeks have witnessed a hand-over of leadership, a host of hard choices, and a series of candid conversations, as school board members, administrators, and community members weigh their options. On Saturday, August 15, Hopkinton residents will vote on a new, stripped-down budget, the final outstanding school district budget in the state.

It’s a budget that delights no one but that board members hope represents a fair compromise, preserving critical programming while incurring minimal tax increases. The alternative is a default budget that many say will cause irreparable harm to the community. 

School Board member Norm Goupil, who has devoted hundreds of hours to tinkering with the budget and talking with community members, is, on the one hand, optimistic. 

On the other?  “I’m scared for (Saturday),” he said. 

Hopkinton: a love story

For 14 years, Goupil and his wife lived in a 900-square-foot house “in a campground, basically,” so that they could send their three children to Hopkinton schools. They moved into a bigger house closer to downtown just this year.

Like many families, they chose the town for a variety of reasons — the short commute to Concord, the appealing downtown — but schools were at the top of their list. 

“Our kids have one shot at getting a quality education,” said Goupil, who grew up in Somersworth and whose parents both worked multiple jobs to send him and his siblings to private schools. “Moving to Hopkinton was the smartest choice Christina and I made.”

It’s a sentiment that goes back many decades and resonates with many community members. 

Comprising two elementary schools and a middle/high school and serving about 1,000 students, the Hopkinton School District routinely ranks among the top schools in the state for its test scores while spending only slightly more than the state average per student. 

Beneath those statistics lie a deeply committed community, say educators and residents alike. 

Hopkinton School Superintendent Steve Chamberlin remembers his first school district meeting as superintendent 12 years ago. It was an unseasonably hot day, so someone made a motion to add an air conditioning unit for the high school auditorium into the budget, and just like that, it passed. 

That’s the way it was for many years, said Chamberlin, who recently announced his resignation after 22 years with the district. “It was incredible. The town meeting was a celebration of schools,” he said. 

Liz Durant served on the school board during much of Chamberlin’s tenure. The school administration, school board and community seemed in step, she said, and they worked hard to develop a vision and identity as a district. 

“Our kids got an excellent education in Hopkinton,” said Durant, who settled in Hopkinton in 2006 after living all over the country and served on the school board for 12 years, stepping down this year. “You can get an excellent education in lots of towns. I think they thrived here because of the community.” 

A growing crisis

In spite of its strong foundations, though, the Hopkinton School District lacks the financial underpinnings many high-performing districts enjoy. 

“From the outside, people think, ‘oh it’s Hopkinton. They’ve got great schools. They’ve got money,’ ” said Andrea Folsom, who has two children in elementary school and joined the school board this year. “But we’re a property poor town. We have no commercial base, no lakes, no mountains.”

And while the residential tax base is high, due in large part to the lure of the schools, it belies the demographic realities of this rural town. 

“I think that there are people in town who definitely struggle with the taxes here in Hopkinton,” Durant said. 

For those people, even small tax increases can feel overwhelming. And in recent years, tax increases have been all but inevitable just to maintain the status quo as costs like health insurance and special education rise, Durant said. 

“There were several years where budgets were getting more and more challenging … as the state ratcheted back their commitments,” she said. 

Meanwhile, deferred maintenance had begun to jeopardize the school’s accreditation. A few years ago, with the encouragement of the board, Chamberlin said he put together a proposal for a $27 million renovation project that included a new auditorium and redesigned entrance to the high school, and addressed numerous maintenance issues. The board adopted it and brought it to the town. 

The proposal galvanized a small but growing group of residents who were unhappy with the level of spending in the district. Signs popped up around town, and fights broke out on social media sites. 

“That was the beginning of a new level of attack, a new level of anger,” Chamberlin said. 

A perfect storm

Jean Lightfoot grew up one of four children in Contoocook, a village within the town of Hopkinton. Her father was a country doctor from 1946 to 1986. “He saw people in mansions, and he saw people in tar paper shacks,” said Lightfoot, who returned to town after retiring from a career as an accountant and auditor in 2007. 

Jean Lightfoot shares her perspective on Hopkinton’s school budget.

Lightfoot is struck by how many wealthy people have moved to town over the years since she graduated from high school, and she worries about their influence over the schools and their budgets. 

“I’ve always supported the schools,” she said. “I was never someone who said, ‘I don’t have kids in the school, why should I pay for it?” she said. 

But this year, Lightfoot had had enough. “People can’t understand what it is to really have to count your pennies and not always get what you want,” she said. “I don’t understand why we always have to have the Cadillac version of everything. … It’s frustrating when a certain part of town wants something, so (they say) let’s just pay for it.”

More than the actual expenditures, Lightfoot was increasingly frustrated with what she felt was a lack of communication about those expenditures. “I felt that there wasn’t enough detail being put out to the public,” she said. “The attitude was, ‘well, you wouldn’t understand it if we put it out there.’ … I’m an accountant. I’m not afraid of numbers.”

In May, Lightfoot voted against the proposed $21.4 million budget. She believes the lack of transparency around the budget was a key factor in its defeat. Many residents have since asked the board for a line-item budget.

But that was hardly the only problem. Along with ongoing unease around tax increases, residents had a pandemic on their minds as they went to the polls. The economy was crashing, and state revenue would almost certainly be slashed. 

And then there was the anonymity factor. Many people believe it was the drive-through nature of the meeting — in contrast with the talk-it-out format of the cherished town meeting tradition — that emboldened people to vote no. 

“Covid created this opportunity for the perfect storm,” Durant said. “It brought it all to a head.”

High stakes and careful compromise

The new proposed budget represents a decrease of about $500,000 from the prior proposed budget. It will increase taxes on a $200,000 home by about $14 a year. To arrive at the new number, the board eliminated staff raises, reduced health insurance coverage, froze several unfilled positions, and made a host of smaller cuts. They preserved several programs that had initially been on the chopping block, including an elementary school math program, the entire middle school sports program, and other cuts to sports and the arts. 

“Let’s protect our student services. Let’s protect our electives, our activities, our sports, all those things that make up the core of an education,” School Board member Rob Nadeau said at a school board meeting last month. “We have done our due diligence to meet the expectations of folks who want to bring this budget down … and do the best we possibly can for our students in some difficult times.”

School officials worry that if voters don’t see it the same way, the town will be headed down a path from which it will be hard to return.

“We will have those with means leave the district, and if people leave the district, the fabric can change,” Chamberlin said. “If schools fall apart, property values go down, and it’s going to be difficult to sell your home.” 

Neighbor to neighbor

Since he joined the school board last year, Goupil has made it his mission to both educate people about how school funding works and listen to their concerns. “People sometimes just want to vent. They’ll be like, ‘Norm, you suck.’ It’s OK to say how you feel,” he said. 

In the past couple of months in particular, the new board has tried to open communication channels with the town, holding regular office hours and providing more details about the budget. Local activists have also mobilized to reach out to voters. Signs reading “Support Hopkinton Schools” have sprung up on lawns all over town. 

Lightfoot, for one, has been persuaded. She plans to vote in favor of the budget on Saturday. 

In a strange way, the pandemic has facilitated the communication Lightfoot felt was lacking. All board meetings take place on Zoom and are recorded. People can now tune in from home or catch up on their own time. 

Some people look forward to the day community members can meet together in person again and hash out their problems. 

“I think it’s really important that people hear other people’s opinions,” Lightfoot said. “You learn things. … Sometimes you walk in with one idea and then change your mind.”

But for all its advantages — not to mention its quintessential New England appeal — the customary school district meeting embodies a tradition that many people agree is out of date. 

“The funding system in New Hampshire ultimately lays the burden on the towns themselves,” said Alyssa McKeon, who moved with her husband to Hopkinton from Massachusetts and has been doing phone work urging people to vote yes on the budget. “New Hampshire needs to have a reckoning about how we deal with education. … Right now we feel like a snake eating ourselves.” 

Alyssa McKeon talks about Hopkinton, its schools, and the budget process.

Cooper Kimball-Rhines went to Hopkinton schools his entire life, graduating in 2018. Although the school prepared him well academically, he believes it fell short in some ways in preparing him for the world. In particular, he said, the schools lack adequate mental health education and support, and he attributes that directly to a budget process that forces residents to deliberately raise taxes on themselves to equip the schools. 

But there’s another reason he believes the treasured notion of local control isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. About 18 months ago, Kimball-Rhines and a high school friend started a campaign to get the school to commit to 100% renewable energy. They spent a year crafting a report and gave a full presentation to the board in June. Despite the proposal’s positive impact on the budget, it got a lukewarm reception from the board, Kimball-Rhines said. 

“The board kept telling us, we can’t really talk about renewable energy until we have a budget for the year,” said Kimball-Rhines, who is preparing to begin his senior year (remotely) at McGill University in Montreal. “I think that budgets being left to localities puts so much pressure on individual school boards that it becomes very hard for them to juggle everything that they need to do. When three months of your year are taken up with crafting school budgets, it becomes very hard to find the time to support students … That funding model is leading to a lot of missed opportunities.” 

Henry Lavoie, who graduated from Hopkinton High School in 2019, has a similar perspective. He’s been looking for ways to support anti-racism and equity initiatives and can’t help seeing the multiple ways in which the state’s funding system perpetuates inequities. 

“Where you’re born essentially determines the quality of your education,” he said. 

Familiar frustrations

Until the state changes the way it pays for education, the town will have to figure out how to stretch tax dollars a little further. 

For the board, a partial solution lies in proactive planning, Folsom said. She also hopes to find other sources of revenue, such as grants or fundraising initiatives. 

Over the years, the district has also considered consolidating with another district, a proposal that has met with resistance in town. Some think it might be time to consider such an idea again. 

Nadeau, who taught social studies at Hopkinton High School for 22 years before joining the board this spring, has floated the idea of a property tax that’s adjusted for income on both the low and the high end. In his short time on the board, Nadeau has already grown accustomed to fielding complaints about rising taxes. A Hopkinton resident for 24 years, he’s seen his taxes go up as well. But he’s done the math, and in his case, property taxes have remained roughly the same percentage of his gross income over the years. 

Nevertheless, he knows some people feel pinched, and he knows their options are limited. “Taxes are high everywhere,” he said. 

Hopkinton isn’t the only town making tough choices this year either. Several districts either reduced or voted down their budgets at their annual school district meetings this year, and most are bracing for the impact of reduced state revenue while worrying about the ability of some constituents to pay their tax bills. 

“If Hopkinton is struggling, imagine towns who are more property poor,” said Folsom, who has testified to various legislative groups about school funding. “We don’t want this state level broken system to divide our community. … Even if folks don’t agree on everything, everyone knows that folks on all sides are coming to this problem wanting to craft a solution.”

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