Allenstown officials plead with lawmakers to stop education cuts

Monitor staff
Friday, December 15, 2017

An exchange about education funding between Allenstown officials and the area’s state legislators turned testy Thursday night – and didn’t win any converts.

Town and school officials had invited local lawmakers to a budget committee meeting to plead their case. The state is slowly phasing out stabilization grants, a $150 million annual program that gives extra state aid to school districts. The program, which is being cut at a rate of 4 percent each year – set to be eliminated completely in 25 years – gives the most to the state’s poorest districts.

In Allenstown, the annual stabilization grant right now totals $2.2 million – about 20 percent of the deeply property-poor district’s total budget. If the cuts aren’t halted, Allenstown will see its annual allotment fall $445,000 by 2021, with the full $2.2 million gone by 2032.

School board Chairwoman Kris Raymond said most of that would have to be made up in the local tax rate.

“Allenstown’s going to be close to the $40 mark in five years, which is just not sustainable,” Raymond said.

But in a heated back-and-forth with Allenstown school officials, Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, responded that it was up to the district to cut expenses.

When Tom Irzyk, another Allenstown school board member, said the state basically ignored New Hampshire Supreme Court cases that established the state’s obligation to pay for education, Reagan bristled.

“So is this just a general complaint session – or are we here to talk about your budget?” he said. “I can see that you’re in a very distressing tax situation, but you stand there and say that you’re going to continue to spend in excess of $10 million dollars.”

Raymond responded that the district was looking at ways to save. For example, she said, it had just approved a feasibility study to consider consolidating its schools to save on the upkeep of the district’s two aging buildings. But making up nearly $500,000 within just five years would require cutting teachers, Raymond said, and blowing up class sizes.

“In order for us to make up that revenue gap, we’re getting to the point of having classroom sizes that are going to go well beyond the (Department of Education) standards,” she said.

Budget committee members chimed in that the school’s budget was already basically as trim as it could get. Tiffany Ranfos called it the “bare minimum.”

Melaine Boisvert said the district already offered its students far fewer programs than its neighbors.

“We have $1 in the line for gifted and talented students,” Boisvert said.

But the meeting didn’t appear to sway anybody. House Bill 525, which will come before the House in January, would freeze cuts to stabilization grants while another committee re-examines the state’s education funding formula.

Rep. Carol McGuire, an Epsom Republican and prominent Free State Project member, said afterward that she “probably wouldn’t” be voting for the bill.

“I think the first thing they’ve got to do is look hard at what they’re spending,” she said.

Reagan, too, indicated that he wasn’t convinced stabilization grants were necessary.

“The stabilization money was an aberration in local control of the education expense and the compromise was to take 25 years to reduce that,” he said.

The only area lawmaker that said he planned to support freezing the cuts was Rep. Alan Turcotte, an Allenstown Democrat.

The Allenstown school district’s proposed budget for next year currently stands at about $10.1 million – about $200,000 less than this year’s budget.

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