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As lawmakers clamor for more school aid, one legislator pitches revisiting the formula

  • School and city officials sign up in the House Education Committee room Tuesday to testify in support of House Bill 525, which would freeze cuts to stabilization aid. LOLA DUFFORT / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/25/2017 12:12:44 AM

A Republican lawmaker hopes to kick-start anew the conversation about how the state doles out aid to school districts.

As it is currently written, Rep. Rick Ladd’s bill – House Bill 356 – does only one thing. It tweaks the base adequacy amount from $3,561.27 to $3,591.27. Adequacy is the amount the state gives to a district per student.

“Adding 30 bucks, in today’s adequacy right now, will make some difference. But not a whole lot of difference. We have a bigger problem,” Ladd told the House Education Committee, which he chairs, on Tuesday. “We need to look at the whole formula itself. And this bill right here could be used as a vehicle to get to that end.”

Ladd told the committee he envisions a joint committee through the Senate and the House working through the year and into the summer in order to come up with a new formula in time for the next biennium.

Ladd said in an interview after his testimony that he had support from Republican leadership about revisiting the formula.

A dissatisfaction about how – and how much – the state pays for public schools was underscored by two bills the committee heard from on Tuesday alone.

House Bill 354 would give certain communities an extra $9 million. The figure represents how much those districts lost out on when the state imposed a cap – ruled unconstitutional by a Sullivan county judge in September – on how much districts with rapidly growing enrollments could expect in adequacy aid.

Another bill, House Bill 525, would freeze gradual cuts to stabilization grants, a program that has been holding districts harmless that would have otherwise seen major reductions in state aid when the state last tinkered with its adequacy formula. In particular, the program helped property-poor towns.

But Rep. Werner Horn, the Franklin Republican who introduced the bill, stressed that simply freezing the 4-percent annual cuts couldn’t be the only solution.

“The need for this, quite frankly, is to give these communities affected by stabilization cuts a chance to breathe while we work on the actual fix for education funding in (the budget bill),” Horn told the committee.

A line of school and city officials coming to testify in support of Horn’s bill ran out the committee door.

Monadnock Regional School district superintendent Lisa Witte told lawmakers her school district had moved well past skimping on supplies to try and keep the tax rate flat.

“It’s programs; it’s buildings; it’s people,” she said.

Schools in her district have high rates of poverty, she said, and they are dealing with the same climbing pension and health care costs as schools across the state. In one town that saw a 17 percent increase on their tax rate this year, Witte said, 46 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch.

While testifying in support of HB 525, she urged legislators to think bigger, too.

“We’ve attempted to pull a rabbit out of the hat multiple times. And we’re kind of running up against – we don’t know what to do,” Witte said.

Carl Anderson, a Pittsfield selectman, told legislators his town’s taxpayers were at a breaking point.

“The closer we get to the edge – and believe me, we’re right there ... the more anger there is from the public,” he said.

People often tell him they’re ready to sell and leave town, he told the committee. But they can’t leave.

“Your plan B dissolves every year that the taxes go up. Because unless you’re prepared to take 40, 50 thousand dollars off your house in Pittsfield as compared to a surrounding town, you’re going nowhere. You’re here.”

Ladd told Anderson the same phenomenon was taking place in his hometown.

“We see the same thing in Haverhill,” he said. “People don’t even want to move into town anymore.”

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


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