Letter signed by 80 local elected officials urges state lawmakers to reform school funding

The following letter was submitted to the Senate Finance Committee as written testimony for its public hearing on the 2022-23 state budget on Tuesday, May 4, 2021:

Cities and towns throughout New Hampshire are losing funding from the State year-after-year, and these repeated gaps in funding are forcing dramatic rises in local property taxes as well as harmful cuts to essential services in our public schools. After more than two decades of inaction, many NH communities, students, and taxpayers are still being neglected by the State. With the recent conclusion of the Commission to Study School Funding, as well as the ongoing 2022–2023 biennial budget discussions, we find it critical to encourage action by the State regarding education funding disparities that harm our communities. As a group of local leaders, city councilors, and school board members, we urge the State to adopt the recommendations provided by the recently concluded Commission to Study School Funding.

Before concluding this past December, the Commission to Study School Funding worked for nearly a year under the direction of the NH General Court and Governor. This commission examined equitable and adequate solutions to the school funding crisis and drafted a proposal that would alleviate the burden on local taxpayers and help provide a stronger education to students. Some of the major findings indicated that New Hampshire’s education funding system remains extremely regressive, utilizes inaccurate funding models, is providing fewer resources to needier communities, and produces decreased educational outcomes for less-advantaged communities. Most importantly of all, the commission determined that the responsibility for these faults is due to the lack of funding by the State. However, the proposals drafted by this commission are glaringly absent from Governor Sununu’s budget, as well as the budget passed by the New Hampshire House. The Governor’s own designee on the commission, Bill Ardinger, stated that because “New Hampshire’s poorer communities are currently producing worse student outcomes than wealthier communities — [this] is a 9–1–1 call for a prompt emergency response.” The Governor is not only ignoring his own designee and the calls for help across the state, but his budget proposal’s reduction in the Educational Trust Fund by nearly $109 million will add fuel to the flames that have engulfed education funding in New Hampshire. The House budget is certainly no better, as it dramatically reduces revenue sharing with cities and towns and cuts funding for an adequate education by about $90 million.

The proposed budgets of the Governor and the House signal that the State is once again set to shirk its responsibilities and rely on local property taxpayers to shoulder the increases in education expenses. The prospective budgets from the Governor and House, if passed, will continue to downshift responsibilities and costs onto local taxpayers. The attempts by the State to “lower taxes” blatantly ignore the dramatic offsets that occur at the local level in order to balance these cuts. The State may choose to shave off a quarter percent on one tax and a half percent on another, but these trimmings will only provide the air of austerity, especially when local property taxes are forced to rise in response to anemic state funding. Over the past four years alone, local property taxes have increased by more than $320 million due to offset costs by the State — disproportionately affecting already cash-strapped taxpayers. “Lower taxes” are a mere farce, and local taxpayers in cities and towns across New Hampshire cannot risk another two years of increased taxes and decreased funding.

For decades the State has neglected to perform its constitutional duty and better-fund public education, and in the more-than-20 years since the first Claremont lawsuit the education funding landscape has only worsened. The decline in the Statewide Education Property Tax (SWEPT) — developed in response to the Claremont cases — serves as the perfect example of “lower taxes” harming local taxpayers. This state-administered property tax was originally intended to offset rising local property tax rates, and many hoped that it would ensure New Hampshire had proper funding to provide a world-class education to all students. However, since its adoption in 1999 the rate for SWEPT has only dropped, not increased in-keeping with rising educational costs; falling from $6.60 per $1000 assessment to its current rate of $1.92. The reason for this precipitous drop is tied to the stagnant fund balance for the state’s Education Trust Fund (used to pay education expenses across the state) which has remained unchanged at $363 million since 2005. To put this in perspective, this fund would need to be set at $500 million this year in order to keep up with inflation alone. It is unacceptable that lawmakers in Concord expect our public K-12 schools to adequately operate with the same amount of funding received in 2005, and it serves as only one of many possible examples of the State’s continued efforts to downshift costs onto local property taxpayers. The quality of education, the resources available to educators, and the opportunities for students now vary dramatically from community to community. Oftentimes the communities in the most need of resources and opportunities are those that struggle to raise funds through local property taxes, yet are forced year-in and year-out to raise taxes. Their teachers are being forced to pay for materials out of their own pockets, their class sizes are increasing, and their students aren’t getting their individualized needs met.

It is the strongly held belief of those signed below that the State needs to take dramatic efforts to reform the ways in which we fund public education — the bedrock of our state’s future. It is not too late though: the Senate has the opportunity to stand up for local taxpayers and the students of New Hampshire. We believe that the Senate, and eventually the Governor and House, should be taking direction from the Commission to Study School Funding while implementing these reforms. The recommendations from the Commission to Study School Funding were intended to be included in the 2022–2023 biennial budget, and amendments should be made to accommodate these recommendations before the budget’s final passage. Not only will these recommendations benefit thousands of students across the state, but they will result in a true and complete reduction in taxes for the vast majority of taxpayers in New Hampshire’s cities and towns.

Thank you,

Paul Grenier, Mayor of Berlin

Peter Higbee, City Councilor, Berlin

Lucie Remillard, City Councilor, Berlin

Ann Nolin, School Board Chair, Berlin

Jeanne Charest, School Board Member, Berlin

Nathan Morin, School Board Member, Berlin

Scott Losier, School Board Member, Berlin

Jon Morgan, Select Board Member, Brentwood

Jim Contois, City Councilor, Claremont

Joshua Lambert, School Board Member, Claremont

Fred Keach, City Councilor, Concord

Zandra Rice Hawkins, City Councilor, Concord

Rob Werner, City Councilor, Concord

Jonathan Weinberg, School Board Member, Concord

Robert Carrier, Mayor of Dover

John O’Connor, City Councilor, Dover

Dennis Shanahan, City Councilor, Dover

Lindsey Williams, City Councilor, Dover

Amanda L. Russell, School Board Chair, Dover

Keith W. Holt, School Board Vice Chair, Dover

Carolyn J. Mebert, School Board Member, Dover

Zachary A. Koehler, School Board Member, Dover

Molly Cowan, Select Board Member, Exeter

Charlie Eicher, School Board Vice-Chair, Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District School

John W. McCarthy, School Board Member, Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District

Olivia Zink, Interim Mayor & City Councilor, Franklin

Mary J. Brown, City Councilor, Franklin

Jay Chandler, City Council, Franklin

Timothy Dow, School Board Chair, Franklin

Deborah Brown, School Board Member, Franklin

Cecile M. Cormier, School Board Member, Franklin

Michael Giacomo, City Councilor, Keene

Andrew Madison, City Councilor, Keene

Bobby Williams, City Councilor, Keene

Andrew J. Hosmer, Mayor of Laconia

Kristen van Bergen-Buteau, CPHQ, School Board Member, Lancaster

Devin R. Wilkie, City Councilor, Lebanon

Tara Hershberger, School Board Member, Litchfield

Leslie Want, Board of School Committee Vice-Chair, Manchester

Dr. Nicole Leapley, Board of School Committee Member, Manchester

Karen Soule, Board of School Committee Member, Manchester

Jim O’Connell, Board of School Committee Member, Manchester

Peter Perich, Board of School Committee Member, Manchester

Julie Turner, Board of School Committee Member, Manchester

Tim Josephson, State Representative and School Board Vice-Chair, Mascoma Valley Regional District

Kenneth Lee Dube, Board of Selectmen, Milan

Brandon Laws, Alderman, Nashua

Jan Schmidt, State Representative and Alderman, Nashua

Lori Wilshire, Alderman, Nashua

Heather Raymond, Board of Education President, Nashua

Toni Weinstein, Town Council Chair, Newmarket

Zachary Dumont, Town Council Vice-Chair, Newmarket

Johnathan Kiper, Town Councilor, Newmarket

Helen Sanders, Town Councilor, Newmarket

Sandy C. Goulet, Board of Selectmen, Pembroke

Michael DiTommaso, Budget Committee Member, Raymond

Caroline McCarley, Mayor of Rochester

Thomas Abbott, City Councilor, Rochester

Palana Belken, City Councilor, Rochester

Laura Hainey, City Councilor, Rochester

Donald J Hamann, City Councilor, Rochester

Peter Lachapelle, City Councilor, Rochester

Christopher Rice, City Councilor, Rochester

David Walker, City Councilor, Rochester

Anne Grassie, School Board Member, Rochester

Dana Hilliard, Mayor of Somersworth

Donald Austin, City Councilor, Somersworth

Nancie Cameron, City Councilor, Somersworth

Martin P. Dumont Sr., City Councilor, Somersworth

Matthew Gerding, City Councilor, Somersworth

Richard Michaud, City Councilor, Somersworth

Crystal Paradis, City Councilor, Somersworth

Martin Pepin, City Councilor, Somersworth

Kenneth Vincent, State Representative and City Councilor, Somersworth

David Witham, City Councilor, Somersworth

Gerri Cannon, State Representative and School Board Member, Somersworth

Coty Donohue, School Board Member, Somersworth

Maggie Larson, School Board Member, Somersworth

Sheena Robbins, School Board Member, Wakefield

Dave Holmander, School Board Member, Whitefield

This letter originally appeared on Medium.