‘You do what you’ve got to do.’ As budgets and funding bills unfold, a look behind the ledgers

It’s a dramatic budget season in New Hampshire. Communities are deliberating over school district budgets stretched paper thin. Legislators are hashing out bills that would infuse schools with needed funds and others that could worsen their condition. The Governor has just released his proposed budget for the coming biennium, and Congress is debating a new stimulus plan that will send additional relief to schools.

How all of the accounting will play out remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Many New Hampshire schools are struggling. Behind the numbers are stories of hard choices, hard sacrifices and harsh realities. Here are a few from the past year. 

The real price of low salaries

Towns that struggle to pass their budgets often can’t afford to pay their teachers a competitive salary. The consequences are many — from dollars wasted training teachers who leave for better-paying districts to low teacher morale. One of the saddest things to witness is the way the consequences trickle down to students, said Franklin Superintendent Daniel LeGallo, who began his teaching career in Raymond, where school budgets are historically tight. 

 “The kids would say to me, ‘you’re only going to work here one year anyway,’ ” said LeGallo (who ended up staying there 18 years). “I was heartbroken. The kids had low self esteem about their school and their town.” 

Read our full story about teacher salaries here

Preserving trust amid hard times

Budgets are fraught with uncertainties this season. Schools are facing a loss of $89 million in state funding, and while several bills and the Governor’s budget aim to fill at least some of the gaps, those fixes may not be in place before many towns have to vote on their budgets. The upshot: hard choices between raising taxes and slashing budgets. 

“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,” said Shaker Regional Superintendent Michael Tursi. “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.”

In Pittsfield, school leaders had already chopped $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. The district budget committee sent them back to the drawing board to slice another $487,000. 

The school has worked hard to build goodwill with the community over the years, in spite of ongoing financial hardships, said Interim Superintendent John Graziano. Maintaining that goodwill meant making some more cuts. 

“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,” Graziano said. “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.” 

Read our full story on school districts choosing between budget cuts and tax hikes here

Teachers picking up the tab

In spite of the low pay in her district, Franklin Middle School teacher Michelle Davis has stuck around for years because she loves the community. That commitment has a price. 

Davis gets to work at Franklin Middle School at 6:45 every morning and usually stays well beyond the 3:10 bell to work on committees and projects. Her day includes no real planning blocks, so she works all day either Saturday or Sunday creating lesson plans and preparing materials. 

Prior to the pandemic, Davis always had a side hustle in retail or food service — not to put food on the table; her husband has a good-paying job — but to buy books, furniture, and digital resources for her students and classroom. 

“I’ve always worked two or three jobs,” Davis said. “You do what you’ve got to do.”

A rude awakening

New Hampshire communities have been forced to make tough choices on school spending for decades, largely because of the way the state funds its schools. Towns like Pittsfield and Franklin — two of the communities who sued the state over education funding in the 90s — have been struggling for decades, but lately, towns that historically passed their budgets with ease and boasted high-scoring schools have also been pulled into the fray. 

Last year, voters in the affluent town of Hopkinton rejected their school budget twice before finally passing a stripped down budget in June.

“The funding system in New Hampshire ultimately lays the burden on the towns themselves,” said Alyssa McKeon, a young mother whose family recently moved to Hopkinton from Massachusetts and who helped get the budget passed by making phone calls to community members. “New Hampshire needs to have a reckoning about how we deal with education. … Right now we feel like a snake eating ourselves.” 

Read the full story about Hopkinton’s budget battles here. And listen to our new podcast here

Speaking up for themselves

Last fall, a group of English Learner students from Manchester West High School wrote letters to the Commission to Study School Funding, requesting better funding for their school district. It started one day in EL teacher Liz Kirwan’s EL advisory group, when she asked them to brainstorm the differences between schools in their home countries and their current school. Some had come here from refugee camps or developing countries with few resources. By comparison, their new school was impressive. 

“But then we asked them to delve a little deeper,” Kirwan said. 

Soon, the students — who come from countries including Tanzania, Mexico, Nepal, and Egypt — started talking about how their sports teams can’t compete at the same level as other schools their size, how they can’t find food they like at lunch, how the limited course options affect their future plans. 

“One of the kids said it really well. He said, ‘I want to cry when I hear about what other schools have,’” Kirwan said. 

Read our full story on Manchester EL students writing to the School Funding Commission here

A grueling year

Some of the long-term effects of the pandemic can be estimated in dollars, and others are far too complex and unknown to be put in a spreadsheet. At the top of that second list is the mental and emotional toll the past year has taken — a toll that could lead to teacher shortages and rising costs for mental health services.

 “Everybody’s putting in more hours than they do in the brick and mortar,” said William Harbron, superintendent of the Dover School District. “It does require a whole different level of energy, too. … Parents don’t understand how much time is required of teachers to plan this well and execute it well.”

Educators are just as concerned — if not more so — about the lasting effects of the pandemic on young people. 

“As a teacher, you worry,” said Michelle Davis, who teaches social studies and English language arts at Franklin Middle School. “Are the kids eating? Are they getting into trouble? They’re your kids.” 

Read our full series on remote learning here