Editorial: Franklin must be bold on education

Friday, August 19, 2016

After a public uproar, Franklin has a school budget and at least 12 of the 22 teachers who were pink-slipped will stay in the classroom. It’s just a temporary fix to the annual school funding battle in a property-poor town. This go round, however, wasn’t just about whether Franklin is doing everything it can – with whatever little revenue it can muster. The debate in the Three Rivers City has also brought much-needed attention to charges, made by local officials statewide, that despite the hard-fought “Claremont” court cases, New Hampshire’s school funding formula fails to meet the state’s obligation to provide an “adequate” education to its school children.

We are entering a critical election season. There will be a new governor, one-third of the seats in the powerful state Senate will be filled by newcomers and the entire House membership is up for re-election. Public school financing should be front and center on the campaign trail. We urge voters to press the candidates on where they stand. In Franklin, seven seats will be up for election on the city council and school board. New candidates, especially those with children in the public schools, need to step up.

Some say Franklin, one of the original “property poor towns” in the Claremont lawsuit, always seems to be on the edge of making progress and then falls back. It’s a reputation the city is trying hard to shed, specifically by working to revitalize its tired downtown and boost the tax base. But as we have said numerous times before, any city’s economic health, and the arrival of new taxpayers, depends on the quality of its schools.

If Franklin wants to change its image, city officials should do something bold to show their genuine commitment to the city’s public schools. It’s not enough to just hold joint meetings from now on with the school board, and promise to “think outside the box.” We do hope that translates into more than a soundbite. For example, we like the idea of exploring free online learning opportunities.

Why not consider a referendum on the city’s tax cap, which has been in place since 1989? The question hasn’t been put to Franklin voters in 14 years. Why not promise to change the distribution of city tax revenue and give a greater percentage to the schools? No matter how small, at least that would make a statement about school support.

At the same time, we side with Franklin, and other localities, when they complain that the state’s current school aid formula is unfair and needs to be fixed. This year, Franklin’s state funding allocation is $8 million, down by $283,000. In part, that’s due to Franklin’s enrollment decline – “adequacy” money is doled out to localities on a per-pupil basis. But $161,399 of that reflects the Legislature’s decision to impose an annual 4 percent cut across the board in “stabilization” funds, which were designed to help out property-poor towns. The state needed that money to pay for increased student enrollment in other places. The cut to Franklin may seem like small change, but to them, it’s big money – enough for a teacher or two, books and supplies.

The decades-long, complex fight over “adequate” school funding goes on. Dover is suing the state saying it is owed $14 million in “adequacy” funds that it never got – about 40 other localities say they are in the same boat. Franklin’s Mayor Ken Merrifield says he will join with other local leaders around the state to demand that the Legislature fix the school aid formula.

There’s talk of litigation, but that’s not the right route, yet. First, the work has to be done at the local level – that’s Franklin’s job – and at the State House in Concord. That’s why the November elections are so important.