With new law, withdrawing from a cooperative school district just became easier

By ETHAN DeWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 07-11-2023 9:22 AM

For Mason, New Hampshire, entering a regional cooperative school district was far easier than leaving it.

In 1961, schools across the Granite State were consolidating, taking advantage of an expansion in the 1947 state law creating “cooperative school districts.” Mason was part of that; it joined with Greenville, Lyndeborough, New Ipswich, and Wilton to create an alliance that would allow the districts to share space and resources.

A half-century later, Mason wanted out. It would take the town six years of negotiations, appeals to state authorities, and political acrimony to pull it off.

“It didn’t go well,” commented New Hampshire School Boards Association Executive Director Barrett Christina, then a staff attorney for the organization, in 2010. “It was not a pleasant experience.”

The process is one that many New Hampshire towns are familiar with. Surry’s withdrawal from SAU 38 was also contentious and led to further departures within the SAU. Most of New Hampshire’s cooperative school districts were formed 60 years ago, and some argue that the means in which to dissolve those districts are unnecessarily complex.

This year, towns and school districts will have a slightly easier time breaking out. House Bill 530, signed by Gov. Chris Sununu at the end of June, changes state law to allow a three-fifths “supermajority” of voters in one or more towns to leave a cooperative school district, and sets a high bar for the remaining towns to stop them.

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Under current law, the only way for one or more towns to break away is if a majority of voters in those towns, as well as a majority of voters across the district, vote to do so.

That process has meant that towns that would like to leave a district must effectively convince a majority of voters in all towns to agree – and that larger population towns can override the effort by smaller towns to leave.

HB 530, which takes effect July 30, preserves in state law the traditional approach to dissolution. But it also gives smaller towns a new chance to leave without needing to persuade the whole district.

Moving forward, if 60 percent of the break-off district’s voters opt to leave, that district may leave – unless a 60 percent supermajority of the whole cooperative district votes to block the effort.

The new law comes a year after some House Republicans had supported a bill, House Bill 1679, that would dissolve all cooperative school districts entirely by 2025, and require the school districts to rejoin if they wanted to continue. That bill was ultimately shelved by the House Education Committee.

To Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, the new law helps address a longstanding issue without tipping the balance too far toward withdrawing towns.

“It places the bar very, very high, but it is one way to withdraw,” Ladd said. “And we feel that this is a compromise measure to allow this act to occur.”

New Hampshire’s cooperative districts were first created in 1947 as way to share resources among smaller towns.

Before cooperative districts, if a town’s school district wanted to send its students to another district’s schools and facilities, it needed to enter into a tuition agreement with the larger school district. That arrangement was not equal: The larger, receiving district would retain full control over the curriculum and budgets of its schools, while the sending district largely served in an advisory role.

Cooperative districts are structured more as a partnership. Individual school districts band together under an alliance, and decisions over facilities and curriculum are made jointly, by a “cooperative school district board” representing all of the districts. The arrangement allows small and rural towns and cities to pool tax revenues and give students access to more specialized facilities and instruction. And in some cases, it helps to create financial balance between property-poor and property-rich communities.

Today, New Hampshire has around 30 cooperative school districts, most of which were formed in the 1950s and 1960s. But Ladd and others say that in the 60 years since, some of the towns in those districts have changed dramatically. Some have seen property values plummet or school enrollment swiftly decline. Those shifts can cause imbalances in resources that can make the arrangements more expensive for smaller towns, Ladd argues.

And critics of the current law have said the departure process creates too many hurdles. First, the school board of a pre-existing school district must conduct a review and send a feasibility plan to the State Board of Education making the case for leaving. Then, if the cooperative school board votes against the plan to leave, it must also file a report arguing against the breakup. The state board must then vote on which report it will accept, and only then can a special election be held among the voters.

That process creates too many points at which the cooperative district can thwart the withdrawal, Ladd argued. By allowing for a three-fifths supermajority to decide, some of that friction is reduced, he said.

Not all are in support of the new withdrawal law. In testimony to the House, Jason Call, a Jefferson resident, worried the bill would encourage “further animosity” between towns.

“Districts make decisions based on what is best for the entire district,” he said. “If it’s even easier to withdraw, districts will have even less incentive to make good long-term decisions if they are always wondering if they will lose substantial numbers of students or significant valuation.”

Barbara Widger, of Manchester, had a different concern.

“This is likely to harm already property-tax-poor towns,” she said in her testimony.

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