Budget impasse’s impact on education explored in Concord

  • Louise Spencer of the Kent Street Coalition in Concord talks to the crowd protesting outside the Legislative Office Building in downtown Concord concerning the budget impasse and how it is effecting the educational funding. “Under the Governor’s vetoed budget and under the prior law, communities are actually having monies taken away for education. Places like Berlin and Franklin don’t have the property tax base to tax them their way to an adequated education,” Spencer said. GEOFF FORESTER

Associated Press
Published: 8/29/2019 3:05:56 PM

Cash-strapped communities urged lawmakers Thursday to prioritize education funding as they renegotiate the state budget two months after it was vetoed. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, meanwhile, sent school officials a revised spending proposal and said he remains willing to compromise.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, say the $13 billion, two-year budget they passed in June would have provided property tax relief and a boost to education funding while addressing the state’s most pressing problems. But Republicans argue it relied on one-time surplus funds for ongoing expenses and would drive the state toward a broad-based tax.

Speaking at a public hearing, Claremont School Board Chairman Frank Sprague told lawmakers that the increased education funding would have been transformational for his city, and that he’s angry that it remains in limbo.

“We had so much hope that we were on the road to recovery, but like so many ... fell victim to politicians who clearly believe that ZIP codes should determine opportunity,” he said. “New Hampshire students suffer by perpetuating the inequities of the have-and-have-not system, the status quo system that moves a few districts forward but many backwards.”

The vetoed budget would have increased school funding by $138 million over two years, including $76 million to restore so-called stabilization grants. Sununu’s latest proposal includes $14 million for those grants. His plan would spend an additional $131 million over two years, but $60 million would be one-time grants for infrastructure improvements.

In contrast, the vetoed budget’s increases would be ongoing.

“We all agree that education funding is an important piece in delivering the best outcomes in our schools,” Sununu said in his letter to superintendents, principals and teachers. “In the spirit of compromise, I will set aside my preferred funding increases for education – including my most recent proposal – and accept the legislature’s preferred approach as long as it does not threaten New Hampshire’s long-term finances or the ability of our state to provide services.”

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier called Sununu’s proposal “unacceptable.” He begged lawmakers to hold fast to the funding they included in the budget and described the city’s struggles after it recently closed its elementary school and consolidated its middle and high schools.

Kindergarten students, including his grandson, are now in a building that was built as a high school in 1919, he said.

“That’s the legacy I’m leaving my grandson. I’m putting him in a building that was built before my father was even born,” he said. “There will come a point in time where property-poor communities like Berlin will be totally unattractive to new investment, further exacerbating the decline that poor communities are facing now.”

Lawmakers also heard from higher education officials, including the chancellors of the state’s community college system and university system. Ross Gittell emphasized that community colleges provide affordable education aligned with the state’s changing workforce needs, and that the state aid included in the vetoed budget would allow a tuition freeze to extend for two more years.

Todd Leach, chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, said he is counting on funding to be able to freeze tuition in the second year of the biennium. That would go a long way toward attracting New Hampshire students at a time when many are leaving the state for school, he said.

“It is the tightest budget I think we’ve ever had in our history, and as we look forward to next year, we would really like to able to send that broader message and keep more of those students in New Hampshire,” he said. “Our state needs them; certainly, our workforce needs them.”

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