Federal funding allowed districts to invest in their students and schools. Now the state has a chance to step up and sustain these investments

After soliciting input from the community last year, Somersworth district leaders used a large portion of their federal relief funds to hire a behavior interventionist for each school. Superintendent Lori Lane says that it’s helped students recover from the uncertainty of the past few years, and they’re coming to school ready to learn. 

“I met with one of our elementary school admin teams this morning, and they’re saying we haven’t seen the same level of behavior issues that we did last year,” she told WMUR in October. “When we don’t have that, then we’re ready to learn, so that’s exciting.”

The historic infusion of federal relief funds in response to the COVID pandemic, totaling $487 million since 2020, has helped districts plug some of their budget holes. Across the state, they’ve used federal funds to support student learning and wellness, increase students’ access to technology, and invest in their school buildings.

Schools have spent the biggest chunk of ESSER funds, however, on staffing – about 30%. Some district leaders are worried about what will happen when the last round of funds runs out in 2024.

The federal funds will expire at the end of next school year, but New Hampshire lawmakers can use some of the expected $430 million state surplus to continue the investments and expand opportunities for students across the state. 

On Monday, February 6, a House committee will vote on whether to recommend legislation that would increase funding to schools in high-poverty areas and more accurately measure student need. These bills, according to funding experts, would help all New Hampshire schools offer a high-quality education, regardless of where they are located. 

Schools are feeling the pinch of the funding cuts in 2021

In 2021, Governor Chris Sununu signed a budget that cut school funding for high-need school districts, and instead passed a one-time statewide property tax cut. The decision cut the statewide property tax by $0.20 per thousand for every town in the state, but it benefited the state’s wealthiest towns while reducing state funding for middle- and low-income ones. 

Somerworth was one of those communities. And even though they received federal COVID funds, this federal money didn’t make up for the loss in state funding. That, along with staff shortages and increased student needs, means the stakes are high as they start to build their 2023-2024 budget.

It’s a balancing act that is playing out in a variety of ways in communities all over New Hampshire as districts try to harmonize student and staff needs with taxpayer capacity while making their best guess about what state aid will look like. Years of defunding and tax cuts at the state level mean that even with a historic influx of federal relief funds, districts are facing tight margins and looking for creative ways to stretch their funds. Some school leaders are especially concerned about sustaining staff and programs they put in place to address student mental health. 

The town of Weare, for example, lost an estimated $590,000 in state aid in the last state budget. This year’s district budget reflects a 2.75% increase for taxpayers, after cutting two unfilled teaching positions and $77,000 in curriculum costs, among other things. 

“There’s not an extra dime,” Jacqueline Coe, Superintendent of the Weare and John Stark School Districts, told Reaching Higher. 

“We’re going to have to make some cuts,” Lane said. “Some of the cuts we’re going to have to make will not be easy.” 

How the state is creating a wedge between communities and their schools 

Lawmakers have tinkered with the school funding formula at least seven times since 2010: changing the formula, adding or removing funding streams, cutting the state retirement contribution, and more. It’s caused a yo-yo effect for schools, especially those in high need communities. 

It’s also meant that residents have had to make up the difference in property taxes when the state cuts funding. This has led to tough decisions about whether to limit resources and opportunities for students, cut jobs, or increase local taxes. 

On voting day last March, Epping voters rejected a collective bargaining agreement that would have given teachers a modest raise. As Superintendent Bill Furbush talked to community members in the ensuing weeks, he learned that the vote didn’t indicate a lack of support for teachers, but rather a fear of unaffordable tax bills. 

At the same time, teachers and school staff are struggling to weather the same economic storm as everyone else. “Now our teachers have missed a year of raises in the highest inflationary period in 50 years,” Furbush said. And, after the vote, more than 20 teachers left the district.

“It really puts someone like me in a tough spot.”

Stability helps form strong teacher-student relationships, but is hurt by financial uncertainty

While enrollment has declined slightly in both public and private schools in the past year, student needs have increased. The Weare School District saw a $465,000 increase in costs directly connected to student needs, but they lost over $1 million between 2021 and 2022 because the state ended a funding program for high-need communities known as “fiscal capacity disparity aid.”

Since those costs are non-negotiable, teacher and support staff salaries end up on the chopping block. 

That has led to high teacher turnover, which is destabilizing for students, families, and staff. Strong school culture and trusting relationships are key to student success, but inadequate pay is one of the top reasons that qualified teachers leave districts — or the profession altogether. 

Replacing teachers comes at a financial cost, too. Districts are forced to spend additional money on training new staff, and some districts have been forced to outsource positions that they haven’t been able to fill due to shortages – at a much higher rate. 

High staff turnover impacts students in high-need school districts like Weare and John Stark the most.

“We’re a revolving door,” Coe said. “We don’t have a long-term fix for our staffing issues.”

After last year’s collective bargaining agreement in Epping failed, 21 teachers left the Epping School District, many of them for better-paying jobs in nearby Seacoast communities. Replacing them was a challenge. 

“We’re finding fewer and fewer qualified teachers,”Furbush said. “Obviously that has a very negative impact on the quality of education we can offer our students.” 

The Road Ahead

The federal COVID relief funding provided historic investments in the nation’s public schools, and in New Hampshire, helped students and communities in high-need areas the most. It allowed schools to invest in their students, staff, and buildings, but these needs will continue long after the funding expires. 

New Hampshire lawmakers are considering several bills that would help schools continue those investments, while helping to address long standing concerns about the fairness of the state’s funding formula. 

Notably, House Bill 529 would provide $100 million in additional funding for the state’s highest-need schools. That bill is still in committee, and is expected to head for a full House vote in late February. 

According to Representative Dave Luneau (D-Hopkinton), it’s not a comprehensive fix, but it helps close the gap. 

“I think at the end of the day, if there’s going to be an interest in having $100 million put towards cutting taxes, that it should be done in an equitable manner” rather than a flat-funded manner, Luneau told the NH Bulletin.

House Bill 601 would allow the state to participate in a program that would more accurately count students eligible for school meals and the associated state funding. School leaders and NHED finance experts have said that the current method undercounts the number of eligible students, meaning that schools are not getting the state funding they qualify for. 

There are also bills to address the teacher shortage. Senate Bill 217 would create an incentive program for teachers to teach in rural and underserved areas, as well as several proposals to create loan forgiveness programs to encourage new graduates to stay in the state. 

Our students and communities deserve great public schools that are fully, fairly, and sustainably funded. But the current funding system means that local officials often have to guess what lawmakers will want to fund. And often, they have to make tough choices that balance opportunity with local capacity. 

“We have to plan based on an estimate,” Superintendent Lane said. “There’s only so far you can predict.” 

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