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Property-poor. N.H. towns mull an education funding lawsuit against the state

  • Andru Volinksy (left) and John Tobin give a presentation about school funding in Pittsfield on June 13, 2018. Lola Duffort—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Town and school officials from more than half a dozen communities packed the lecture hall at the Pittsfield Middle High School on Wednesday night to learn about how New Hampshire funds its schools and to brainstorm ways to challenge the status quo, including in the courts.

The event was led by two attorneys who helped litigate a series of landmark state Supreme Court cases in the 1990s that established the state’s responsibility to pay for an “adequate” education – Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and John Tobin.

The event comes as property-poor school districts have been talking with increasing urgency, in the face of growing cuts to state education aid, about suing the state over its school funding mechanism, which remains heavily reliant on local property taxes.

Volinsky has pledged not to sue the state again while in office, but he’s also said he would continue public advocacy on the subject. And Tobin, on the other hand, has said he plans to take the state to court if he can muster together a legal team and plaintiffs.

Volinsky began his presentation using a tall, white plastic staff to illustrate the central problem: the property tax.

Because schools rely on local property taxes for the bulk of their funding, taxes in towns lucky enough to border a lake, or to host a ski mountain, he said, can raise large amounts of money at a very low tax rate. Property-poor communities, meanwhile, tax their residents at a much higher rate – but raise less money for their schools.

Roughly in the middle of the staff, a black bar indicated the average “equalized valuation per pupil” for New Hampshire – that’s how much money a town has, on average, in taxable property per student.

Bars on the staff indicating the equalized valuation in Berlin, Claremont and Pittsfield were only about as high as Volinsky’s waist. Portsmouth’s mark on the staff, on the other hand, cleared Volinsky’s head by several feet.

Tobin told the crowd he wanted to start a lawsuit. But he also added it was crucial that people be educated about how the state’s education funding system works.

“One of the things that’s really become clear to me is that’s what probably more important than a lawsuit are meetings like this. Meetings like this need to happen all over the state. Because people don’t understand the system,” he said.

Several people also mentioned that 2018 is an election year, and they urged their peers to hold state lawmakers accountable for the votes on education funding.

“We continue to elect people who vote against us,” said Louie Houle, a budget committee member from Pittsfield.

Much of Wednesday’s discussion also centered around stabilization, a $150 million state education grant program that in particular buoys New Hampshire’s neediest districts. Since 2016, the state has been phasing out the program via reductions of 4 percent each year.

Rep. Werner Horn, a Franklin Republican, told the crowd stabilization had been implemented in 2012 when the state last retooled its formula for doling out education aid. The new formula would have so suddenly and dramatically pared back funding that the legislature created stabilization grants as a hold-harmless mechanism they never meant to keep around in the long run.

“The intention was never for stabilization to last. It was only to conceal the amount of financial damage that was being done,” he said.

Bryan Lamirande, the business administrator for Berlin’s school district, said the loss of stabilization funding was “really what triggered this for us.”

The district’s annual stabilization grant once amounted to $5.5 million – about a third of its total school budget, he said. Every year since 2016, that annual allotment had been reduced by $220,000.

“How can we work collaboratively now to start a lawsuit? Because we’re ready to go,” he said, to applause from around the room.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)