PODCAST: On Our Own: A top-notch school district feels the funding pinch

In this special podcast, Reaching Higher intern and Hopkinton native Henry Lavoie goes in search of answers to why Hopkinton’s school budget failed last year and how his hometown’s struggles typify the every-present tension between quality education and fair taxes.


In mid-May of 2020, I was back home in NH from college, when the boredom of quarantine began to really sink in. So, I decided to tune in to one of my favorite local events: the annual meeting for my alma mater, Hopkinton School District. 

(Audio from Hopkinton district meeting) Moderator: Well I have 7 o’clock so we’re going to get this meeting started. Welcome to the second online session of the 2020 Hopkinton School Meeting.

Similar meetings are held annually in towns across the state so School Boards and residents can discuss and vote on school-related issues. Most years, this event would be held in the high school gym, where a few hundred residents would have time to debate each ballot issue, and then vote, on the spot. 2020 was the first year Hopkinton held its district meeting virtually, with drive-through voting to be held in the days following. Keep in mind this was back in May, when the new normal was still new to most Americans.

Clip: Botched Pledge of Allegiance

Despite occasional difficulties with Zoom, the format was still similar to a typical district meeting. On screen were the faces of Hopkinton’s School Board members and superintendent. After a presentation, residents could call in to make public comments — I should note that viewers could hear the voices of people making comments, but couldn’t see their faces.

Moderator: If you unmute yourself, I think… Devin?

Speaker 4: Thank you so much James, thank you… 

On the agenda for this particular meeting was the school’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Every year throughout NH, citizens vote to approve the budget for their town’s schools. The district meeting provides time for public discussion on this issue. Most years in Hopkinton, the budget is a fairly non-controversial vote. A handful of residents might raise concerns about how much is being spent on the football program or a new elevator, but in the end, the budget basically always passes without issue. However during this meeting’s public comment section, I quickly realized that in typical 2020 fashion, this would not be like most years.

Moderator: with that we are back to Arnold/Alice Coda.

Arnold Coda: Yup, it’s Arnold Coda. Just a few more comments here. First of all — and I would be saying this anyhow even if several speakers before me had not said it — I don’t favor this budget.

Over the course of a few hours, resident after resident called in to voice their concerns about the School Board’s spending increases and their lack of regard for the tax burden it placed on Hopkinton’s most vulnerable citizens.

Speaker 1: You do not need to increase my taxes in any way, shape, or form. You should decrease them.

Speaker 2: The entire mindset that says, we have to socialize education, and have only one provider of education, and that the local municipal government will be the monopoly that produces that, that is what drives neighbor against neighbor and causes so much vitriol. 

Speaker 3: The difficulty I’m having — and I admire your work — but you’re not to be trusted.

Probably the most commonly voiced concern was the effect the Covid-19 recession was having on Hopkinton residents. 

Speaker 4: To me as I’m looking forward to the next year and what our community is really gonna need, I’m seeing a community of children that are really gonna need our support, and that that support really needs to be given through strong funding of our schools… 

While several community members certainly voiced their support for the school budget, the comments that made this district meeting so memorable came from residents who saw the economic downturn as reason to cut school funding and lower local taxes. 

Speaker 3: It is time for you to put a cap on it and get smart… Yes Bill, I love your smile, but get smart.

Moderator: Peter, please stop with the personal attacks.

Speaker 3: It wasn’t a personal attack, I was looking at Bill’s very nice smile.

Moderator: It sounded to me like a personal attack, I’m sorry if it wasn’t.

Speaker 3: Yes, so no personal attacks, but it’s time for you to do what you can do with the money you have. Plenty of people can help you, plenty of people have experience, not me, but plenty of people have the experience and time to set it right, cut the budget, and goodbye and good night.

A few days after the district meeting, residents voted no on Hopkinton School District’s 2020/2021 budget for the first time in years. A few weeks later, the School Board proposed a new budget, which was again, defeated. It would take another 3 months before the Board put together a budget which the residents of Hopkinton voted to approve, just weeks before the beginning of the school year.

I graduated from Hopkinton just a year before this political drama went down. The idea that an issue as benign as the school operating budget would become so controversial is something I wouldn’t have expected a year ago. Yet, after just a little bit of digging, I found that this has been a simmering point of contention in town since before I was born. So how did Hopkinton get to this point, what will happen at the upcoming school district meeting, and what does this town’s story say about education funding in the rest of the state? I’m Henry Lavoie and this is School Talk.

Part 1: Becoming Hopkinton

To understand why so many people are so angry about Hopkinton’s school budget, I think it’s worth looking back at a decision local politicians made a few decades ago. To tell that story, I called up someone who’s been active in local school politics for longer than most people have lived in town.

Arnold Coda: I’m Arnold Coda… I served on Hopkinton’s School Board from 1990 through 1996. Let me interrupt here I just got a message here it says  ‘Zoom would like to access the camera. In order for participants to see you, Zoom requires access to your camera.’ Ah! Look at that, I can even see myself! Ok good so in any event…

This is Arnold Coda. He’s lived in Hopkinton since the mid-80s, but spent much of his career in Boston working in finance. Most notably for this story, he spent a few years at Boston University, where he helped develop their operating budgets. After moving to Hopkinton with his wife, he went on to serve as a School Board member for six years in the early 90s, and then as School Treasurer for almost a decade. Today, Arnold is retired, but remains active in local politics. He’s one of the residents you heard comment at the top of the show.

Arnold Coda: First of all… I don’t favor this budget.

Arnold told me that when he was on the School Board in the early 90s, Hopkinton was a very different school district than it is today. Then, Hopkinton was joined with three neighboring school districts — Henniker, John Stark, and Washington — in what’s called a multi-district school administrative unit, or SAU. Under this system, each district operated mostly independently — collecting their own taxes, creating their own curriculums, and electing their own school boards.

But, all four districts shared one superintendent and one SAU office, which was responsible for running the business- and managerial-side of each of the schools. They, for example, made sure each school followed state regulations, directed programs like special education and food service, and had a heavy hand in administrative tasks, like developing school budgets. 

For a small school district like Hopkinton, sharing the cost of these administrative duties with other towns made some sense. However Arnold explained that eventually, the cumbersome bureaucracy of the central SAU office became more of a burden than it was worth.

Arnold Coda: Any given month, that superintendent had to attend a minimum of 8 school board meetings… That meant also that the business officer had to take into account 4 separate budgets.. And every month prepare four separate budget reports.

Increasingly, Hopkinton’s school board felt like they weren’t receiving the attention they needed from the multi-district superintendent. Arnold and the other Board Members felt they could improve educational quality and better manage the budget if they had more control over the administrative side of their district. Eventually, the Board approached the superintendent to address their concerns.

Arnold Coda: We also had some very frank discussions with the then superintendent that things needed to change. We were not getting the kind of attention that we wanted. So therefore as we the board continued to discuss that, we explored the possibility of becoming a single-district SAU.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Hopkintion’s School Board petitioned the state Department of Education to leave the four-district SAU and instead create their own single-district SAU. In 1992, the DoE signed off on their petition, allowing Hopkinton to create their very own administrative office and superintendent position. The way Arnold saw it, the district was free from the bureaucratic hurdles which prevented school administrators from making real, positive change.

Arnold Coda: In the beginning, things were working the way that, we the board, expected they would

The School Board recruited Hopkinton’s first superintendent — a seasoned school administrator from New York. Under his tenure, the district began to take a more serious approach to education and education funding. Arnold describes these years as a period of steady, positive progress for Hopkinton.

Arnold Coda: So he was here for three or four years, so we’re coming up at this point to ‘96, ‘97, when he left. And we by then were making improvements on both fronts: the financial control side and the academic improvement side.

That’s when Hopkinton hired its second superintendent: Richard Ayers.

Richard Ayers: I really believed in what the potential for Hopkinton was just because it was a close community. I mean there was an education community there.

When Richard first came to Hopkinton in 1997, he thought the overall quality of its education services was adequate, with lots of room for improvement. Especially with their newfound independence as a single-district SAU, he saw nothing but potential for the small district.

Richard Ayers: I think it was an occasion where all of a sudden, teachers and administrators had more independence… in how they wanted to bring forward a credible education for the community.

Compared to his previous superintendent position at Laconia School District, a larger multi-district SAU, Ayers found working at Hopkinton allowed him a more hands-on approach to providing and improving education. During the near decade he spent at Hopkinton, Richard chipped away at a plethora of projects to improve the district’s quality of education.

This included hiring a new commited core of teachers and administrators, decreasing class sizes across the board, establishing a preschool, improving psychological and speech support services, offering advanced studies and AP classes at the high school level, and placing more emphasis on early elementary math and reading skills. 

One of the oft-cited changes to the district during the Richard Ayers era was to Hopkinton’s special education services, when they hired a full-time special ed director and generally improved the program.

Richard Ayers: One of the things that was critical, from my perspective, is that we needed to take care of all kids. We couldn’t just do that with a part-time person.

Overall, Hopkinton became a much different, and many would say, much better school system during the late 1990s and early 2000s. According to Arnold Coda, who at this point was the school treasurer, it didn’t take long before people began to take notice.

Arnold Coda: the word developed that Hopkinton has the best educational system in the area. As a companion with that… it appeared that people believed, that we also had an exemplary special education program… So the result was that a number of people moved into town because of one or the other or both…

One thing to know about the town of Hopkinton is that it’s just a 15-minute drive to Concord, NH’s capital and a center of business in the region. So, when doctors from Concord Hospital or lawyers from concord-based firms were deciding where to send their kids to school, Hopkinton was quickly becoming an attractive option.

My own parents fit this profile basically to the tee. Overtime as more families like my own moved to Hopkinton, a major demographic shift in town became apparent. Between 1990 and 2010, population growth was actually quite usual compared to the county average. However what’s noteworthy about this period isn’t how many people moved to town, but who moved to town.

Arnold Coda: And coupled with that, (Arnold’s referring to Hopkinton’s improved education programs here) very bluntly I will say, was the beginning of the entering of affluent, professional, younger people in this town 

From the perspective of established Hopkinton residents like Arnold, droves of young, wealthy families were pouring into town. While it’s hard to find data which definitively confirms this, anecdotally, there are few people in town who dispute this narrative, even the young, affluent families themselves. 

What I can say for sure is that today, a disproportionate number of professionals live in Hopkinton. In 2019, according to data from the Census Bureau, 27% of Hopkinton adults 25 years and older held at least a postgraduate college degree. This is nearly double the state-wide rate for postgraduate educational attainment, and 80% higher than Merrimack County.

For superintendent Richard Ayers, this marked success for the school district. After becoming a single-district SAU, Hopkinton was able to grow from a largely average, traditional school system, to a district with a top-of-the-line K-12 program which was attracting families from around the region. 

Richard Ayers: There was no question in my mind that Hopkinton could not achieve a greater stature in their education program.

But from Arnold’s perspective as the school district  treasurer, this period was anything but successful.

Arnold Coda: Those boards, over how many years, seemed not to care much about controlling budgets… and that’s when our costs began to balloon

When Arnold was on the School Board in the early 1990s, he saw the transition to a single-district SAU as an opportunity for Hopkinton to get serious about controlling costs in the school budget. Because state funding for education is so limited in NH, the vast majority of dollars used to pay for schools have to be raised locally with property taxes. So when a school like Hopkinton decides to, say, hire a new teacher, the majority of their salary and benefits are paid for directly by Hopkinton taxpayers. As the district began to spend more on new services and upgrades to their existing services, many in town began to feel the pressure on their tax bills.

Arnold Coda: There were two years in a row, I remember vividly, when each year’s increase was, literally, an even half a million dollars. So over two years, our budget increased by a million dollars. That really took a toll on the tax rate.

I asked Richard Ayers about these spending increases and whether he thought they were excessive. He wrote in an email that the advanced studies program, expansion of special education, and other services certainly account for part of the story. But, he also noted that many of the cost increases were unavoidable. The 1990s and 2000s were a time when schools around the country had to purchase and integrate all new technology systems, for example.

The debate over whether these cost, and therefore tax increases were “out of control” as some describe them, has raged on through today. Regardless of whether these school budget expansions were justified though, it’s clear that they had substantial downstream economic effects on lots of Hopkinton residents.

Many of the new, wealthier parents in town could afford yearly tax hikes, and felt they served a good purpose as they saw their kids go through the school system. However many longtime residents felt they would eventually be priced out of town if these spending increases continued. Arnold tried to use his position as School District Treasurer to raise the alarm about this effect of their spending increases. While he had some small, occasional victories, he says he mostly had little sway over the superintendent and School Board.

As more and more Hopkinton residents felt the financial pressure of these tax increases, they began to organize politically, attending the annual school district meetings as a bloc to voice their concerns. But Arnold explained to me that there too, parents in favor of increasing school funding dominated the agenda.

Arnold Coda: they began to become the majority of people who attended each year’s annual school district meeting where the vote is taken on the budget as well as other warrant articles. Other people had become worn down. They saw no point, any longer, in going to the meetings because they always got outnumbered and therefore outvoted by the affluent people. 

And as Arnold describes it, a cycle was set in motion from that point on. Every year parents voted to approve budgets which allowed for more and better programs. This improved the schools’ reputation, which encouraged more families to move to town, who would then vote to approve more budget increases. All the while, people like him who’d lived in Hopkinton for years saw their town rapidly changing around them, and their tax bills steadily increasing.

Back in the early 90s, Arnold thought that if Hopkinton created their own SAU, and had their own superintendent, then the town would have more control over their schools, and the school budget. Just ten years later, the town suddenly looked very different, and controlling the school budget seemed totally out of his control, even as the school district’s treasurer. Without the necessary votes at district meetings, those hit hardest by increases in local property taxes felt disillusioned, and increasingly ignored by the School Board. Or, more simply put:

Arnold Coda: It was becoming an us versus them situation, back that far

After the break, us and them come to a head on Zoom, and the balance of power in Hopkinton’s political arena starts to shift. Stay tuned.

Part 2: The Budget Battle

By 2019, the economic, social, and educational trends that began in Hopkinton during the late 1990s were still in full swing.

For the school district, business was booming. The improvements to programming and services that began under Richard Ayers’s tenure as superintendent began to pay off. Hopkinton High School had been named either the best, or one of the best public high schools in the state several years in a row. For a town of 5700 residents, the high school boasted an impressive number of AP classes, a sports program with multiple several-time state champs, and excellent performance on standardized testing.

But as I learned in high school economics, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Hopkinton’s local property tax rate continued to rise through the 2010s, and by 2019, landed at just over $29 per 1000. This is fairly typical compared to surrounding districts, but is definitely high compared to the rest of the state. Rob Nadeau was my high school economics teacher — he’s the one who broke the news about the price of lunch — and in early 2020, he had a frank conversation with a Hopkinton resident about the local tax burden:

Rob Nadeau: His effective tax rate, as a proportion of his income which he pays to property tax: 20%. Yeah he’s got a reason to be upset and concerned.

Today, Rob is retired from teaching, but serves as one of five members on Hopkinton’s School Board. Since he was elected in the spring of 2020, he’s become hyper-aware of the local property tax burden. Especially for Hopkinton’s large community of retirees, many of whom live off fixed incomes, the year-over-year increases are often financially overwhelming.

Rob Nadeau: Those are the people I’m worried about. 

But not everyone in town feels the same pressure from their tax bill.

Rob Nadeau: I’m less worried about the people who move to town and buy an eight, nine-hundred-thousand dollar house and then are so concerned about the burden of their taxes. That’s a clear difference in choice that someone has made.

Generally speaking, the wave of younger families that moved to Hopkinton for the schools are notably wealthier than the generation of retirees who’ve lived in town a while longer. Census data shows that, in 2019, Hopkinton homeowners ages 25-44 had a median income which was 113% higher than homeowners over the age of 65. This generational income gap is almost twice as wide as in the rest of Merrimack County. 

Rob is well acquainted with this local economic divide, and knows that many Hopkinton families struggle to pay their local property taxes every year. But, he insists that the yearly tax increases haven’t been excessive.

Rob Nadeau: For most properties you will find that the year-over-year tax increase is somewhere around three percent… That’s not out of control school increases or tax increases.

The rate which taxes are increasing isn’t far off the rate of inflation, he argues. Plus over the past ten years, several sources of school funding from the state government have either been decreased or cut entirely, requiring towns to make up that lost revenue locally. He gave the example of the state retirement fund being cut.

Rob Nadeau: Twelve years ago the state picked up a huge portion of NH retirement. Now towns pick up all of that as well as what teachers take out.

In the last decade, New Hampshire’s state legislature has also made cuts to general adequacy funds, building aid, stabilization grants, special education aid, and other funding sources, leaving towns to foot the bill with local property taxes.

Rob Nadeau: A lot of this offshifting by the state to the town is just brutal, I mean $282,000 this year in retirement costs that we didn’t have last year, because the state’s not picking it up  

Hopkinton’s School Board has tried their best to communicate how this offshifting affects the local tax rate. Rob explained that, yes, Hopkinton has more AP classes than it used to, but the state government has really forced the district’s hand by offloading these essential costs on to towns. Some  believe this has been the main driver of the local tax increases.

Not everyone is so convinced though. Here again is former School Board member and District Treasurer, Arnold Coda.

Arnold Coda: The state has reduced the amount of educational aid that it had been providing. However, the majority of our cost increases began well before any of those actions happened. So those actions fell on top of the increases that we were already experiencing in this town. 

Many in town agree. So in 2018, a group called Concerned Taxpayers of Hopkinton was formed. For the first time in years, an organized political effort was made to advocate for substantial cuts to the school budget, in order to lower the local property tax rate. Concerned Taxpayer yard signs started popping up all over town — there wasn’t a street you could drive down without seeing them. Parents and others in favor of full-school funding quickly responded with “Support Hopkinton Schools” signs, leading to a year-long local sign war.

By the fall of 2019, it was clear that many Hopkinton residents had little appetite for any more large budget increases. So when the School Board’s finance committee began drawing up the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, they created what they saw as a lean, compromise budget, anticipating political opposition.

Coming into 2020, with Hopkinton’s vote on the school budget nearing, it seemed like these economic and political forces would continue to pile up. After years of Hopkinton Schools riding high on their educational success, they continued to lose the financial support of the state and the political support of their taxbase. Something was eventually gonna have to give, but few seriously expected that 2020 would be the year that Hopkinton would have to face these mounting structural issues.

Then in mid-March of 2020, all that changed when news came from the governor’s office.

(Audio from March 15, 2020 NH Covid-19 Press Conference) Governor Chris Sununu: Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here this afternoon. The Covid-19 outbreak in NH has rapidly evolved over the past 48 hours…

At a press conference, Governor Sununu directed all NH schools to transition immediately to remote learning.

Gov. Sununu: The community and the spirit of Granite Staters is unmatched, we know this, and when we work together as neighbors and friends, we do it really, really well.

Back in Hopkinton, while teachers were preparing for the transition to remote, the School Board had to figure out how they were going to organize a town-wide vote on the school budget under new Covid-19 restrictions. 

In normal times, the budget vote is held at a yearly school district meeting, where residents gather at the high school gym to debate, and then vote on ballot items, including the operating budget. During the public comment period for each ballot item, voters can address the School Board and hundreds of residents in the bleachers with a microphone at the front of the gym. After debate is over, people cast their votes in one of several ballot boxes scattered around the gym, and the results are tallied on the spot. These meetings usually last all day, so few people end up staying to vote on every item.

Obviously a large indoor gathering wouldn’t be a safe way to hold a vote. So, two changes were made to the district meeting to make it safer for Hopkinton residents. First, public debate for the budget was to be held online with Zoom, where residents could call in to make their comments. And second, the town voted to adopt a new kind of district meeting called SB2, which for many towns is their usual way of conducting business. What SB2 basically does is separate the debating and the voting into two different meetings. That way, the School Board could hold the public debate over Zoom, and then voters could cast their ballots the following day at drive-through voting booths.

This is all very procedural and complicated, but the bottom line is this: to debate and vote on a budget in the before time, you’d have to sit through a boring, five-hour-long meeting in a sweaty school gym, and get up to speak in front of some-300 antsy people if you wanted to give your opinion. With these new rules, you could sit naked on your couch and eat popcorn while you make a public comment to the School Board, and then drive 10 minutes down the road the next day to vote. If you wanted, you could even vote without tuning in to the public debate at all. So, somewhat paradoxically, voting on the budget became easier than ever during the pandemic.

Now, after thirty years of background, we’re finally back to where we started the episode.

Moderator: Well I have 7 o’clock so we’re going to get this meeting started…

The now infamous 2020 Hopkinton School District Meeting. As the public comments began, one person in attendance realized that the new meeting format had fundamentally changed the politics of Hopkinton’s school budgets.

Mia Richter:  Interestingly my impression of the lines that this fell on is that it mainly benefited the people who are usually inclined to vote down high budgets or who want much lower

Mia Richter is a senior at Hopkinton High School and serves as one of two student representatives on the School Board. At the top of the episode, you heard a few clips from Hopkinton’s public debate on the 2020 fiscal year budget:

Speaker 1: You do not need to increase my taxes in any way, shape, or form. You should decrease them.

Moderator: …please stop with the personal attacks.

Speaker 3: …you’re not to be trusted.

I asked Mia if she thought the Zoom format changed the dynamic of the district meeting compared to previous years.

Mia Richter: I think people feel maybe more comfortable calling in and being really critical, than standing up in the gym in front of a couple hundred people.

This Zoom effect, as she calls it, was immediately clear. While a Hopkinton school district meeting wouldn’t be complete without outraged citizens expressing their strongly-held opinions, this was very different. In the gym, you’d have to be pretty gutsy to get up in front of the whole town, stare down the superintendent, and tell him to his face that he should be fired. But on Zoom:

Speaker 1: Perhaps the senior executives in our school system need to go away

It was clear by that night’s comments that public trust in the superintendent and School Board were at an all-time low, due to financial anxieties and a lack of in-person communication. This was something that Rob Nadeau had to adjust to during his first few months as a Board member.

Rob Nadeau: One of the most amazing things that happened to me, maybe it was May at this point. So we had been there for two months, ‘we’ meaning this five-member board and people were referring to us as a collective, like ‘you school board members.’ What? You know how I am like what marijuana have you been smoking? I’ve been in this job for two months. I was a teacher, I live in town, how did I all of the sudden become this scripted school board member who can’t be trusted?

As public comments continued into the night, more voters called in to oppose the proposed budget, and openly question the trustworthiness of the School Board. The superintendent and Board Members kept their composure and listened throughout the public comments, but before they moved on to the next item, Board Chair Jim O’Brien finally addressed some of the larger proposed budget cuts.

Jim O’Brien: This is a public school. We serve all students who come in and meet the needs of all students… and some of these budget reductions in these amendments, I think would have drastic consequences. When I say drastic consequences what I mean is as a district we couldn’t fulfill the needs that we’re obligated to meet by federal and state statute… This isn’t a scare tactic, this is the truth. 

By the end of the several-hour-long meeting, I got the sense that nobody felt good about what was said. Not the residents, not the superintendent, and certainly not the School Board.

Rob Nadeau: You lose a little sleep in this job. I’m beginning to learn that there are things you can control and can’t control, but ultimately the voters, they’re in control. We try to guide the ship and get it to the point where we think it’s what’s best, but come school district meeting day, the voters decide.

The next day, on May 16, the voters ultimately decided to vote down the Board’s proposed budget with record turnout. For Mia, the defeat was somewhat unsurprising given the new SB2 drive-through voting process.

Mia Richter: For me, it’s a very conflicting issue, because I believe in increasing access to voting, but it also makes uninformed voting a lot easier, because you don’t have to sit through the meeting to get to the items, and so you can just read the ballot and see like “this one’s the lowest that’s the one I want.”

In past years, parents with a vested interest in passing the school budget were the main bloc willing to sit through those five-hour school district meetings. Now that voting was more accessible under the SB2 format, different groups could more easily represent their interests at the polls.

The defeat of the budget was tough for the School Board, but they wasted no time convening a series of emergency meetings to start drafting a new budget. Here’s Rob Nadeau at the first of those meetings:

Rob Nadeau: First I want to thank everybody who voted on Saturday. It was quite a scene — so to speak. Maybe not the result, in that we’d have a result. But it did provide a lot of feedback for us to look at how we’re going to structure this budget going forward.

With that feedback in mind, the Board put together a new budget, trimming off as much fat as they could, and scheduled a vote for May 30, just two weeks after the first budget was defeated. But again, residents decided to vote the budget down. It was at this point that many parents, teachers, and Board members began to realize something that many in town had known for over two decades:

Mia Richter: It’s possible that tough reality for people like me and all the other people in town who want to put a lot more money into the schools, is that the people who don’t want to pay as much for the school outnumber the other group and have been here the entire time and have just been underrepresented.  

Remember what Arnold Coda said about all those rich families who moved to town in the 2000s?

Arnold Coda: they began to become the majority of people who attended each year’s annual school district meeting where the vote is taken on the budget as well as other warrant articles. Other people had become worn down. They saw no point, any longer, in going to the meetings because they always got outnumbered and therefore outvoted by the affluent people. 

Because the pandemic dramatically increased access to voting, that balance of power began to flip. After years of feeling shutout of the process, folks like Arnold Coda had a real say in the school district’s political process. The possibility of putting real controls on school spending and tax increases seemed in-reach.

After another protracted few months of bargaining and tough decisions, the Board managed to put together a budget with the smallest increase possible from the previous fiscal year, known as a flat budget. The town voted to pass this budget on August 15 in a third vote, making Hopkinton the last school in NH to have an operating budget for the 2020 school year. While the Board and many parents certainly weren’t happy with the final result, they felt they’d avoided the worst, narrowly dodging any major let-offs or cuts to essential services. Arnold Coda points to this as evidence that the Hopkinton schools can operate fine with trimmer budgets, but students like Mia say it’s tough to determine the true impact of the 2020 budget cuts.

Mia Richter: In terms of seeing the impact of budget cuts, I’m not sure if I have noticed an impact of the specific cuts from this last cycle because this year has been so weird.

Even though Hopkinton Schools may have dodged a bullet last year, a similar budget fight is likely on the horizon for 2021. With the district meeting taking place this spring, the Covid-19 rules which benefited Hopkinton’s low budget supporters will likely remain in place for at least another year. But according to Rob, all it would take is one more year of no budget increase to devastate Hopkinton Schools.

Rob Nadeau: If we go through what we went through last year and we were to end up at a flat budget… making up 1.4 million would savage what we do… You think about $100,000, that’s usually one teacher. So 1.4 million, that’s 14 people, or take out all your sports that’s $400,000 bucks. So now you’re down to all sports and 8, 9, 10 teachers. That’s not what I signed up to do, that’s for sure.

Part 3: The Future

So what does the future hold for Hopkinton School District? With at least another year of the Covid-style district meeting, it seems like Hopkinton voters against school spending increases are here to stay. And while state-wide school funding reform is having a bit of a moment in NH, following the release of the School Funding Commission’s final report, the Republican-controlled legislature seems to have other priorities. So with no new state dollars coming in and a local citizenry that is at or nearing their maximum tolerance for more taxes, Hopkinton’s School Board will have to look elsewhere for new revenue sources, unless they want to continue making major funding cuts to their schools. 

Rob Nadeau has a few ideas for where Hopkinton could make up some much needed cash flow.

Rob Nadeau: I would like to see us once COVID is done and we’re done with all this hybrid/remote stuff that we actively try to bring in students, at a tuition rate that exes out things like the cost of transportation and the cost of special ed

Bringing in tuition-paying students from out-of-district is an interesting option, mostly because it requires very little structural change within the school district. So Rob sees this as an appropriate first step to bring additional revenue. But the catch is if major school budget cuts continue, meaning small class sizes and major programs like sports are put on the chopping block, Hopkinton might not be such an attractive school system for out-of-district parents to send their kids to.

So, the School Board has begun to float a much more radical option: undoing a decision made by a previous Board over twenty five years ago.

Rob Nadeau: We’ve had this discussion as a board, that at some point, if these costs continue to rise, what is the reality of staying as a single district

The decision for Hopkinton to create its own SAU, and do education all on its own, a decision which arguably made Hopkinton one of the best public schools in NH, might have to be reversed for the town to solve its deep-seated money problems. To be clear, at the time I’m writing this script, all discussion the School Board has had about the possibility of merging is purely theoretical — it’s never even been an agenda item for discussion. But, that might change as the reality of 5700 taxpayers funding the majority of a premier public school system becomes increasingly unsustainable. 

Rob Nadeau: We wanted to stay as a single district and now we’re feeling that pressure. They’re huge overhead costs to running your own school district that’s this small.

Unlike the multi-district SAU which Hopkinton was previously a member of, merging with another district could hypothetically mean that students from neighboring towns are actually taught in the same classrooms. While a plan like this could alleviate some financial pressures, it would also somewhat upset Hopkinton’s reputation as a district committed to small class sizes and personalized education.

Mia Richter: …I think people would oppose it because people in Hopkinton are really proud of our high school being one of the best public high schools in the state and it has its whole reputation wrapped up in being 300-something people… 

For decades, families have moved to Hopkinton specifically because the schools are small and tightly knit. Any disruption to this current educational culture is often met with harsh criticism from parents, especially.

Rob Nadeau: You know literally I’ve had people say to me, well, what if my kid doesn’t get the lead role in the play or doesn’t get to play soccer because a kid from another town comes in who might be vying for that position. That’s crazy town to me.

Merging would be a tough sell for Hopkinton’s students, parents, and educators. But as funding from the state continues to dry up and residents can’t absorb more tax increases, the School Board is running out of viable strategies for the district to stay afloat financially. Mia suspects that it might take a few years of the community seeing the sad reality of major budget cuts first-hand to finally change some minds.

Mia Richter: So maybe that’s what it takes is a couple of years of no sports and no arts or something, which is just awful, and then people in the town decide like, “ok now we have an appetite for merging or try to create some other kind of change.”

For Hopkinton, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting changes to the school district’s voting system forced a reckoning that’s been a long-time coming. Overburdened taxpayers and parents who want quality schools for their kids are finally on equal footing to negotiate an education system which works for everyone in town. After many years of parents largely controlling the school’s political process, this is an uncomfortable arrangement for many. Mia, on the other hand, has a much more pragmatic view of things.

Mia Richter: I think the general theme here is that people need to decide what they want and what they’re willing to compromise to get it and then they need to go do that

In many ways, the 2020 budget crisis forced some progress on this front. While the political process was often messy,  and occasionally ugly, the end result was a budget that nobody seemed totally happy with — which to me, is the sign of a true compromise. But going forward, having a yearly four-month-long battle over Zoom doesn’t seem like an effective, or sustainable way to negotiate fair school budgets.

Back in the spring when I was watching this political drama unfold, I thought that 2020 was destined to become the precedent for Hopkinton’s school budget making process. At that point, the us vs. them politics of local school funding were already so deeply entrenched that they seemed irreversible. But, there was one anecdote I found in the process of reporting this story that made me a little less cynical.

Back in the late 1990s, when Richard Ayers was Hopkinton’s superintendent and Arnold Coda was district treasurer, the two regularly got into pretty fundamental disagreements. While Richard was trying to build up a distinguished public school system, Arnold tried desperately to advocate for those who couldn’t afford the taxes which came along with such schools. Despite their differences though, neither had a bad thing to say about the other. Here’s Richard:

Richard Ayers: I’m really pleased that you’ve talked to Arnold, because we have this mutual respect for eachother. We don’t always see the same way on things, but that’s what it’s about. It’s too bad that in some ways our culture moved away from that — of really being able to listen clearly to people and to respect their ideas but not necessarily agree with it, and then what ends up is you come somewhere in the middle and it works.

And here’s Arnold Coda — keep in mind that these two haven’t spoken to each other in over over fifteen years.

Arnold Coda: I liked Dick Ayers, I liked him a lot. We got along very well, we didn’t always agree. And that’s a key note by the way. People don’t have to agree between themselves all the time in order to understand and respect each other, and get to like each other.

The reason the mutual respect between these two has stuck with me, is that the disagreements they had weren’t all that different from the ones that are causing so outrage today. Like Richard, Hopkinton’s parents want good schools for their kids, and like Arnold, overburdened taxpayers don’t want to be priced out of a town they’ve lived in for decades. Details aside, I think most people in town would agree that both of these desires are fundamentally reasonable. Yet, that respect for each others’ motivations has somehow become lost in the last 20 years.

Hopkinton was just one of many NH school districts that saw major budget reductions in 2020, in the face of state-funding cuts and the COVID-19 recession. In the coming years, many other districts will likely have to face similar tough realities. 

It’s possible that these schools could see some financial relief from the state in the near future. Proposals to change the state-wide school funding formula are currently taking shape in the NH legislature. One funding model being considered would bring much-needed tax relief to about 70% of NH towns, while increasing state funding to districts that need it most. However, that proposal is already being met with resistance. For now, state education funding continues to be slashed annually, leaving local taxpayers to foot the bill.

It’s easy for citizens of a school district like Hopkinton, caught in the crossfire of this dire economic and political situation, to point fingers amongst themselves for their problems. It’s easy to blame Concerned Taxpayers for the funding cuts to your kid’s sports team and it’s easy to blame the School Board for your already high tax bill increasing another hundred dollars.

What’s not so easy, is to recognize that the reason Hopkinton is in this situation has less to do with Richard Ayers, yards signs, or drive-through voting, and much more to do with an education system which somehow doesn’t allow high quality education and reasonable tax rates in the same town.

Mia Richter:  My bottom line on this is really that it’s just so ridiculous that it’s the School Board’s job to determine the tax rate on the people in the town. I feel like we all accept that as the way that this works, but if you stop and think about it… I mean we’re seeing it’s just impossible to reconcile how to fund schools adequately and figuring out how to not insanely burden everyone in the town. I just don’t think it should be linked like that.

A huge thanks to Arnold, Richard, Rob, and Mia for speaking with me, and to my wonderful boss, Sarah Earle, for help editing, and trusting her new intern with this 2-month-long mystery project. This episode of School Talk was written and produced by me, Henry Lavoie. To stay up-to-date on education news, sign up for our newsletter at reachinghighernh.org and follow School Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening — we’ll catch you next month.