Editorial: SB 2, property tax system turn Allenstown kids into victims
Children, parents and taxpayers in the Allenstown School District once again find themselves victims of two of New Hampshire’s most terrible traditions: SB 2 voting and the state’s long over-reliance on local property taxes.
SB 2 voting allows residents at poorly attended deliberative sessions to make mischief that can be endorsed by ill-informed voters at the polls and thereby turn carefully crafted municipal and school budgets into chaos. The overreliance on property taxes means that it takes a much greater effort for residents of property-poor towns to generate the revenue necessary to provide their children educational basics – and sometimes forces them into unconscionable decisions.
The fact that these two traditions are playing havoc with education in Allenstown should be a particular embarrassment to multiple New Hampshire legislatures and governors past and present. The community was one of the original plaintiffs in the long-ago Claremont education funding lawsuit – a lawsuit the state lost. Allenstown, Claremont and several other poor towns argued that funding public education largely through property taxes put their students at a distinct disadvantage. All these years later, that’s still the case.
Here’s what has happened in Allenstown in recent weeks: School officials put forth a $9.7 million school budget. But at the district’s annual deliberative session, a member of the budget committee suggested chopping $1 million off the bottom line. The fellow who proposed the cut didn’t suggest where the money might come from or what programs or staff members might be sacrificed – but he nonetheless won the support of a narrow majority of those at the meeting: 35-33 votes. That’s the budget that will now go to the voters next week.
And because Allenstown school voters operate under SB 2, they will be asked to vote at the polls – with no chance for the further discussion or deliberation possible at a traditional town meeting. Voters will see a big number and a smaller one and be asked to make a choice.
School officials say a budget cut that large will force the district out of compliance with state mandates – which could, in turn, cost the district even more money. Where would officials find $1 million? Among the likely victims: teachers of art, physical education, music and foreign language, a school resource officer, library and technology specialists. Field trips and sports teams would no longer be in the budget either. The harm would mostly affect younger children; the tuition to Pembroke Academy for high school students is set in stone.
Such cuts are damaging indeed. But in New Hampshire’s system of local governance, the needs of school children are regularly pitted against the inability or unwillingness of cash-strapped taxpayers to vote to raise their own taxes. One Allenstown resident told Monitor reporter Daira Cline that she was willing to see field trips and sports disappear; after all, she said, they’re not education.
Fortunately a third New Hampshire tradition is also at play in Allenstown: grassroots citizen activism. With luck, the parents and teachers now working to rally voters against the school budget cut will win the day.
We’re not experts on the Allenstown School District budget. It’s certainly possible that there are economies not yet dreamed up. But the process here is terribly reckless. And an indiscriminate $1 million cut can’t possibly do anything good for education.