My Turn: It’s time for state to ease local education burden

For the Monitor
Last modified: 2/14/2016 1:09:24 AM
As communities around New Hampshire prepare to make important school funding decisions at town meetings this March, a familiar struggle is taking shape. The demands being placed on taxpayers to maintain high-quality education plays out with rising tension every year, as people worry about affordability. It is time for state lawmakers to alleviate that pressure.

Take the recent discussions at the deliberative session of the Kearsarge Regional School District. The proposed operating budget is roughly $40 million. Locals offered an amendment to reduce spending by $826,000, or 2 percent. The angst that arose from the parents, employees and taxpayers in the audience was palpable. Parents worried about cuts to academic and extracurricular programs. Senior citizens on fixed incomes and homeowners expressed that their backs are against the wall, and they simply cannot afford tax hikes of any kind. Both sides have legitimate concerns. This scene is playing out all across New Hampshire.

The Kearsarge Regional school board and the municipal budget committee understand the angst. Why are citizens facing ever-increasing tax rates for town residents and budgets? It’s because New Hampshire lawmakers are downshifting school operating costs through unfunded mandates. This is an impotent funding approach and a myopic vision of both political parties on how to use the state’s general fund money for public education.

In my town of Wilmot, the new real estate tax rate is $23.68 per thousand of assessed value. The school appropriation is $2,719,380, of which the state contributes a grant of only $256,129. The amount owed by Wilmot residents to Kearsarge Regional School District is 59 percent of the town budget, and that is largely just a maintenance budget plan. The state contributes no monies from the general fund to support Wilmot’s obligation to meet the statutory obligations of the school district. This is the same story for all of the 221 towns and 13 cities of New Hampshire.

This goes counter to the basic principles that the founders of New Hampshire established in 1788. Unfortunately, it took a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision to force state legislators to begin to uphold the public education obligation – but at only a minimum and with nothing coming from the state’s general fund for a town’s education obligations.

The backbone of economic viability in New Hampshire is K-12 public education. New Hampshire’s STEM curriculum will provide more skilled workers, develop more innovation and entrepreneur projects, health benefits, businesses and affect the New Hampshire demographics. There is a return on this worthy investment. However, the 96 School Administrative Units must meet the standards of an unfunded STEM curriculum. Affordability is a concern because costs are shifted to town real estate taxes.

To reduce the angst of the taxpayer in each town and city, to allow relief from these high education tax rates for operating budgets and to fund the quality education, state legislators should:

1) Eliminate the requirement of the state education tax on a town’s real estate bill and pay this from the state’s general fund;

2) All STEM K-12 personnel should be supervised and funded by the New Hampshire Department of Education from the general fund, with the local SAU districts doing the hiring and developing curriculum;

3) STEM school labs, supplies and equipment should be purchased and installed by the state;

4) Mobile advanced STEM labs should be developed by the state to bring innovative high-tech equipment to SAUs to allow students to undertake critical research experiments.

Instituting new tax policy with state funding will reinforce the importance of public education in developing a thriving economy and skilled workers, and will attract more young people, which will mean long-term benefits for all residents and businesses of New Hampshire.

By lowering local tax rates through the use of state funds, the angst among citizens can be reduced and towns can retain local control of basic education, while those who set the rules can start paying for them.



(Tom Schamberg is a member of the Wilmot Board of Selectmen and a former state representative who served on the House Ways and Means Committee.)




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