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Underfunding in New Hampshire Will Continue Until Broad Based Taxes Replace Property Tax

August 30, 2019

I accepted an assignment as Superintendent of Schools in New Hampshire in 1983, moving into the state from Maine where I served three years as Superintendent. When I accepted the position, a colleague of mine who had moved FROM New Hampshire TO Maine warned me that I was about to leave what was then one of the most robust State funding systems to the worst. He was right. Maine provided 90% reimbursement for bus purchases, transportation expenses, special education, and building aid. It also had a formula in place that supported schools based on their property wealth with property poor districts receiving substantial aid and wealthy districts getting less. In New Hampshire there was diminished aid across the board… to the extent that in one of the more affluent towns I served we got just over $25,000 in state aid.

At one of the first meetings I attended with my colleagues, most of whom led districts far more property poor than the six towns under my jurisdiction, I recall one of them saying that the current finance system was unsustainable and that he expected to see wholesale changes in the coming years. Surely the new GOP candidate, John Sununu who was an engineer, would see that more revenue was needed to ensure that schools in property poor districts across the state would need more state funds to provide equal opportunities. Now… 36 years later… nothing has changed. Lawsuits filed by property poor districts have been won and governors in both parties have done nothing to provide the revenues needed to help the struggling districts. And now, CHRIS Sununu, son of the engineer who could not see the need for more revenues, is governor and, like his father, sees no reason to increase the funds for schools. Worse, like his counterparts in the GOP, he DOES see a need to provide tax cuts for businesses on the theory that attracting businesses to the State will somehow bring more revenue to the property poor districts. But after decades of experience, he and his colleagues in the GOP should know that when businesses ARE attracted they tend to be attracted to the affluent communities that offer their employees good services, good schools, and good housing. Cuts to business taxes help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

So, in 2019, New Hampshire finds itself at an impasse. Their GOP governor vetoed the budget passed by the Democratically controlled legislature because he thought too much money was going to schools and not enough was being provided to business. The result: the state funds for school districts are the same in 2019-20 as they were in 2018-19. Consequently the towns who adopted budgets based on the legislator’s budget figures will be scrambling. Should they hire new staff based on the legislature’s budget or not? How about those bus purchases? How about the new technology they wanted to provide?

Our local paper reported on this situation and had this one poignant quote:

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier called Sununu’s proposal “unacceptable.” He begged lawmakers to hold fast to the funding they included in the budget and described the city’s struggles after it recently closed its elementary school and consolidated its middle and high schools.

Kindergarten students, including his grandson, are now in a building that was built as a high school in 1919, he said.

“That’s the legacy I’m leaving my grandson. I’m putting him in a building that was built before my father was even born,”he said. “There will come a point in time where property-poor communities like Berlin will be totally unattractive to new investment, further exacerbating the decline that poor communities are facing now.”

Sadly, the “point in time where property-poor communities like Berlin will be totally unattractive to new investment” came decades ago. When the paper mill closed in that community and the stores were shuttered there might have been a chance to entice a new business there… but the town is so forlorn and the schools so underfunded that it is highly unlikely that anyone would want to relocate there. 

What would help? An infusion of government funding from all levels is the only way to make dilapidated communities like Berlin come back to life… but as long as we are in the thrall of low taxes governments will never have the resources needed to help communities like Berlin.

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