‘We think we can get there, but not without a lot of pain’: Heading into budget season, school leaders grapple with losses in state revenue

By Sarah Earle

School lunches await pickup at Belmont High School. A school lunch program waiver designed to help schools meet all students’ needs has caused a reduction in state aid.

In the early days of the pandemic, as bad news piled on top of bad news, one announcement brought a wave of relief and joy to New Hampshire schools: a waiver to the eligibility requirements for the federal school lunch program. 

“We were so happy when we were informed that we could feed all the kids in the community for free,” recalled Michael Tursi, superintendent of the Shaker Regional School District. 

No one imagined then that the well-intentioned decision would come back to bite them.

“It was an emergency situation. Getting food to families that really need it was a priority,” said Tursi, who’s now looking at an operating budget which, even in its austerity, will result in significant increases for taxpayers in Belmont and Canterbury. 

Belmont faces a decrease in state funds of almost 18%. Canterbury: a whopping 34% decrease. All told, New Hampshire schools face an $89 million drop in state funds in the 2021-2022 school year, according to NH Department of Education reports

About $19 million in lost funding can be traced to the school lunch waiver. State adequacy aid for low-income students is calculated based on eligibility for the federal Free and Reduced-Price Lunch program. Without eligibility requirements, schools had a hard time getting families to fill out paperwork this school year. Declines in enrollment, largely due to the pandemic, caused another $13.9 million in anticipated losses. The expiration of one-time funding for the state’s most vulnerable communities created an additional $59 million gap. 

There is also some indication that state leaders will address at least some of the funding shortfalls. In response to a letter from a group of mayors and school board chairpersons from across the state pleading for more state funds, Gov. Sununu said that the state is looking at ways to address the school lunch program funding gap. A bill that would calculate state aid based on last year’s enrollment numbers in cases where they are higher than this year’s has also been introduced. 

In the meantime, and without any assurance that relief will materialize, school leaders are making tough choices between painful budget cuts and painful tax increases. 

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on our state aid … and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Tursi said. “We have to continue providing our students with as many opportunities as we possibly can.” 

Using a scalpel approach, Shaker Regional school leaders were able to create a school budget that reflects just a 1.49% increase over last year and is lower than the “default” budget of 1.77%. That looks pretty good at first glance. But with an anticipated loss of $1.6 million in state funds, the impact on taxpayers will be sizable: an increase of $2.13 per $1,000 of assessed property value for Belmont residents and $2.24 per $1,000 of assessed property value for Canterbury residents. Put another way, that’s an additional $560 on the tax bill for an average-priced home in Belmont, and an additional $672 on the tax bill for an average-priced home in Canterbury. 

“It’s going to hit us really hard this year in trying to explain that our operating budget is minimal, but … if your expenditures are not being offset by your revenues, the local taxpayer has to pick up the difference,” Tursi said. “It’s going to be especially difficult this year in the sense that many families have fallen on hard times. They’re scraping. We understand that.”

Other districts have had to take more drastic approaches. The Dover School District, which stands to lose about 3.6% in state aid, is looking at cutting 63 full-time positions in order to keep its operating budget under the city’s tax cap. That’s on top of cuts already made to curriculum, special education, technology, and capital improvement. 

Seeing such cuts in a neighboring city, Matt Gerding, a Somersworth city councilor and seventh grade science teacher at Somersworth Middle School, is bracing for the worst. 

“I’m panicked that something similar may happen here,” Gerding said. 

Somersworth, which will release its initial budget in March, is facing an almost 18% drop in state funds and also has a tax cap. If the past is an indicator, the crunch will almost certainly result in budget cuts, Gerding said. Although the district has worked hard not to lay off staff as state aid has decreased, they’ve seen the loss of positions due to attrition. 

“It comes out in the quality of services that we can provide to our students, and particularly students with IEPs (individualized education programs),” said Gerding, who’s seen the number of paraeducators per grade level shrink from six to two in the five years he’s been in Somersworth. “Everyone’s been working double duty to make sure that services remain the same, but that falls on the rest of us.” 

In Pittsfield, school leaders had already shaved $190,000 off the operating budget in order to keep tax increases to a minimum when they learned they’d be losing about $1 million in revenues, mostly in state funds. Last week the district budget committee asked them to slice another $487,000. 

“We reviewed it, and we think we can get there, but not without a lot of pain,” said Interim Superintendent John Graziano. “We’re looking at further reductions in supplies and materials. We’re looking at a 30% reduction in co-curriculum. We’re looking at the support staff. And we’re also looking at teaching positions.” 

Graziano hopes that, presented with a lean budget at next week’s deliberative session, community members will avoid making deeper cuts. 

 “I want to be hopeful,” he said. “In spite of the economic challenges, Pittsfield is a good school district with a lot of competent caring people and community members that have found ways to support the schools…(but) people are concerned about their families, their health, job loss, change in income… it’s unknown. I hope that they see that we made the effort. If we had to cut any more from here, we’re really talking about decimating the system.” 

Even as state funding dwindles, the expenses it has offloaded to local districts — namely insurance and retirement costs — are increasing, said Mark MacLean, superintendent of the Merrimack Valley School District. His district expects to lose $2.5 million in state funds next year, while absorbing an additional $550,000 in retirement expenses. As a result, school leaders have chiseled the budget but still had to introduce a tax increase. They have not had to make program or staffing cuts — and were even able to add some electives at the high school — but they plan to leave some vacancies created by anticipated retirements unfilled and combine a grade level at two of the elementary schools.

“Budgeting has been challenging,” MacLean said. “We’re shifting spending patterns and reallocating/repurposing prior to considering any increases. … We also strive to bring forward a budget focused on students that is also cognizant of the impact to our taxbase.”

All of this comes at a time of extensive deliberation and intense debate over education funding. The Commission to Study School Funding, established during the 2019 legislative session, spent most of last year examining the state’s funding formula and developing proposals for reform. Those proposals are currently being crafted into legislation. At the same time, some lawmakers are championing a voucher bill (HB 20) that would divert public funds to private schools and homeschooling expenses. 

Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Supreme Court is expected to rule on the ConVal lawsuit, which challenges the way the state funds its schools, sometime in the coming months. Federal education funding is also very much up in the air as the new administration begins. 

“I’m hoping with the new administration they’ll see that there needs to be a way that we provide more consistent support to schools,” Graziano said. 

An infusion of federal funds, however, is unlikely to fix state problems decades in the making. “When I first came to New Hampshire back in the early ’80s, tax increases and the unfairness of funding in New Hampshire was an issue,” Graziano said. “Here we are many, many years later, still dealing with the same issue.” 

It’s especially sad, he said, to note that Pittsfield was one of five districts who sued the state over school funding in the original Claremont lawsuit — and won. 

Gerding, who worked as a research assistant for the Commission to Study School Funding over the summer, had hoped that its recommended reforms would get traction in the 2021 legislative session. Now, he’s less than optimistic. 

“Honestly, I think, first things first, the state needs to take full responsibility. They’ve been told time and time again that they need to take responsibility,” Gerding said. “As of right now, I’m just holding my breath.” 

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