Pittsfield to host education funding talk

  • The Pittsfield Middle High School is shown in March of 2018. Lola Duffort—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/7/2018 10:51:04 PM

Pittsfield will host a public workshop next month about the way New Hampshire funds education led by Executive Councilor Andru Volinksy, the lead attorney on a series of landmark state Supreme Court cases out of Claremont that established the state’s responsibility to fund an “adequate” education.

The move comes as property-poor communities like Pittsfield across the state renew tentative conversations about once again challenging in court the state’s method of paying for school, which remains heavily reliant on local property taxes.

Volinsky has pledged not to sue the state while in office. But he’s also said that wouldn’t stop him from public advocacy around the matter. Meanwhile, another attorney, John Tobin, the former long-time director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, has put a public call out to communities and attorneys interested in mounting another legal challenge.

In Pittsfield, a long-simmering conversation about taxes and school funding has become all the more urgent as the district works to find nearly half a million dollars to cut from its budget next year.

Pittsfield residents in March voted 272 to 238 against the district’s proposed $10.5 million budget in favor of a $10.2 million default spending plan. The district was also hit with unanticipated special education costs, said school board Chairman Mike Wolfe, and now has to find $450,000 in cuts before the fall.

The school board has already decided to make six additional personnel cuts to its administrative and teaching staff, Wolfe said.

“We won’t have a teacher for foreign language next year. We’re going to try and do that through Rosetta Stone,” he said.

Also gone: The district’s extended learning opportunities coordinator, which help set up internships for students, and a technology teacher.

Wolfe said the spending decisions all cut to the quick, but that the district’s main priority at this point was maintaining its accreditation.

“None of them were good choices,” Wolfe said.

Outside of personnel, the school board has also cut middle school volleyball for girls, axed new uniforms, opted to hold off on textbook and technology replacements, and decided to hold on to some aging carpeting and furniture it had hoped to change out.

The board still needs to find an additional $50,000 to $60,000 in cuts, Wolfe said. They’re looking at the busing budget and turning the superintendent into a part-time position.

Pittsfield been perennially challenged by twin budget challenges: an extremely small tax-base per-student and too few pupils for saving money on bulk purchases. That’s meant some of the state’s highest property taxes despite the district struggling to offer a wide breadth of programming.

The district is being hit especially hard by the phase-out of stabilization grants, a state education aid program that buoyed the state’s poorer communities. Each year, Pittsfield’s grant, which once totaled $2.2 million annually, is being reduced at the rate of $86,000 a year.

Wolfe thinks things need to change. But he’s nervous about whether or not another lawsuit is the way to go.

“I would like to say we’re rip-roaring ready to go, that we’re ready to sue. But financially, I don’t know if we can,” he said.

A legal challenge would also span several years. Wolfe said the school board would need to know the community was in it for the long haul.

“All it takes is one (school) board to say ‘no, we’re not doing it anymore,’ ” he said.

The school funding workshop is scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 13 at the Pittsfield Middle High School.

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

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