My Turn: Summer break is over for students, budget writers

For the Monitor
Published: 9/2/2019 7:00:09 AM

As students across New Hampshire head back to school, lawmakers in Concord are headed back to work on a state budget deal. Summer vacation is over, and it’s time to get back to work.

Our state government is currently operating under a three-month continuing resolution, and state aid to local school districts has been paid. But the Legislature and governor have to reach agreement on how to fund state government for the rest of the biennium.

Education funding is one of several issues on which the governor and Legislature disagreed, but there is a lot of common ground. I am confident our elected officials will be able to hammer out a budget agreement. The key will be to focus one-time state money on one-time needs, providing sustainable funding to local school districts.

In fact, the governor’s budget proposal allocated the most state funding per pupil in New Hampshire history. It also built upon the first-ever state support for full-day kindergarten that was included in the last budget.

Staff at the Department of Education worked to craft a budget focused on one of Gov. Sununu’s top priorities, school safety. The Public School Infrastructure Fund created in the last biennium allocated $28.8 million to local school districts for safety and security projects. Many districts would not have been able to complete those projects before the June 30 deadline, so in May, the Legislature gave broad bipartisan approval to an extension, ensuring these funds could be put to good use. We also proposed extension of the Public School Infrastructure, allocating one-time money for new projects.

The governor’s budget proposal included $63.7 million in targeted building aid, using the surplus generated in the last budget. The Legislature wanted to transfer these surplus funds into the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget, raising the state’s education spending baseline significantly. When those surplus funds go away, that approach would leave a big hole in the next budget.

That’s a significant difference in budgeting, but it’s based on common ground. The governor and Legislature agree on providing aid to local school districts. We have to do so in a sustainable manner, and decide if the aid should be targeted or open to all districts.

Current law phases out stabilization grants, which were meant to hold school districts harmless for past changes in the state’s education funding formula. If we can reach a permanent budget agreement, these stabilization grants may be restored.

Special education is another area of common ground. We all agree on the need to help districts with these costs, which can put a real strain on local budgets, especially when small schools serve an increased number of special education students. After 10 years of flat funding, the governor’s budget proposal increased special education funding by 20%.

As commissioner of education, I cheer every bit of good news about New Hampshire’s booming economy. We have sustained job growth, low unemployment and robust state revenues. Every month, we set a new record for the most Granite Staters working. Let’s keep going!

At the Department of Education, we’re partnering with New Hampshire businesses to expand work-based learning opportunities for local school districts. And the governor’s budget proposal included $8.6 million for Career and Technical Education tuition and transportation aid. A growing economy means more and better jobs when graduating students enter the workforce. It means more opportunities to put their educations to work, and brighter futures.

Thanks to a strong economy, we have a surplus that we can use to direct increased state aid to local school districts. We just have to be careful to do so in a sustainable manner. We can’t leave local districts hanging when one-time money isn’t there in the next budget.

New Hampshire students are heading back to build brighter futures. Finding a sustainable budget solution that helps these students is our test. Let’s not fail them.

(Frank Edelblut is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.)

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