In Pittsfield, an old school issue: full staffs depend on tax rates 

  • The Pittsfield first deliberative session gets started on Saturday morning, February 1, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 3/8/2021 4:59:44 PM

When voters in Pittsfield close the curtain at the polls on Election Day, they’ll face a choice that local officials say presents a dilemma created by the state’s broken method of funding education.

A “yes” vote on Article 3 of the school warrant, seeking approval of the modestly proposed operating budget of $10.03 million, would necessitate cuts to staff and programs in the school district, while representing welcome tax relief for homeowners.

Conversely, a “no” vote on Article 3 would bring the default budget into play, and in this case that means stability for school staffs. However, it also translates into $900,000 more than the initial proposal and an extra $2.58 hike per $1,000 of assessed property value. The lower budget figure carries a tax impact of $1.85 per thousand, the higher one, $4.43. The difference equals about $775 in annual taxes on a home worth $300,000.

The gray area here is reflected in the voting tally shown on the Pittsfield school warrant. The School Board voted, 4-1, against the lower budget total. The Budget Committee, meanwhile, endorsed the smaller figure by a close 7-5 vote.

The money proposed in the other four articles on the school warrant were recommended by both groups in landslide decisions.

“I can identify with the dilemma confronting taxpayers, especially this year with the pandemic,” said Dr. John Graziano, Pittsfield’s interim school superintendent.

Graziano noted that the default budget, while higher than the proposed budget, would essentially be the same dollar figure as last year.

He also cited data that, if the lower operating budget passes, it would leave parents of school-aged children concerned: A total of 13.5 instructional and support staff members, including 8.5 teaching slots, would vanish, Graziano predicted.

“And in a small community like Pittsfield,” Graziano said, “that is a very big hit.”

School Board Chair Bea Douglas noted the Granite State’s decades-long failure to replace property taxes with a fairer, more equitable system to fund public education.

“The issue of school funding is what has put us in this predicament,” Douglas said by email.

The school and town warrants came together following an arduous process of revisions by elected officials, plus input from the public that, after last month’s deliberative session.

In recent months, dried-up state aid led to cuts – the Budget Committee sliced $487,000, the public another $500,000 during the deliberative session – to create Article 3’s proposed operating budget of $10.03 million.

Katie Bachelder, vice chair of the Budget Committee, was one of seven members who supported the smaller spending proposal, believing lower taxes should take center stage.

But she, too, saw this as a no-win situation, forcing residents to choose between lower taxes or a higher level of education.

“I, of course, can see both sides, and I realize what a tough decision voters are being faced with,” Bachelder wrote in an email. “It’s not just what kind of impact it has on schools, but the overall impact on taxpayers and business owners who work here.”

Tracy Huyck opened Pittsfield’s Main Street Variety two years ago. She owns the building that houses the store, which has helped during the coronavirus pandemic, but she said a big tax hike could have serious consequences for the town.

She said an out-of-town business owner who wanted to move to Pittsfield backed out because of the tax rate. She also said a local woman was priced out of renting a studio for her photography business.

Huyck added that there are desperate residents in Pittsfield.

“We can not afford a higher tax rate,” Huyck said. “We are looking at possibly 12 or 13 people who will be unemployed, but there are hundreds of taxpayers who could possibly lose their home.”

All sources contacted were mindful of the other side’s view.

“It’s not the fault of the voters and it’s not Pittsfield’s fault,” Graziano noted.

“We are challenged because of how education continues to be funded in New Hampshire,” he added.

Social media comments on what has become a fairly loud buzz in town have led some officials to believe that the lower figure – and thus lower property taxes – will rule Election Day.

But supporters on both sides acknowledged a dilemma.

“I could not support close to a million dollars in cuts,” Douglas wrote in her email to the Monitor, “but I understand that the tax increase is too much. It is a near impossible situation.”




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