close
close

Concord Monitor – New Hampshire Senate rejects school funding bill despite districts and mayors expressing need

At a Finance Committee hearing on April 30, 2024, state senators will hear testimony on a school funding bill.
JEREMY MARGOLIS – Monitor Staff

A month after a bipartisan group of state representatives joined forces to pass a bill to increase state education funding, Democratic and Republican senators voted together against it last week.

HB 1583 would have increased per capita funding for all students from $4,100 to $4,404 and increased supplemental aid by varying amounts.

At a Senate hearing on the bill last month, politicians and school superintendents from across the state said their school districts urgently need the additional aid to ensure adequate funding.

A letter signed by the mayors of 11 of the state's 13 cities, including Byron Champlin of Concord and Desiree McLaughlin of Franklin, urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

“There is a significant gap between the true cost of education and what the state of New Hampshire provides to communities,” the mayors wrote. “While the state currently provides $4,100 per student in equitable assistance, districts across New Hampshire spend an average of $20,000 per student, with the majority of that difference borne by local property taxpayers.”

But senators from both parties countered that both the bill's price tag – an estimated $203.5 million over three years – and its timing – in the middle of the two-year budget cycle and amid two high-profile legal battles over school funding – posed challenges.

“For me, it was a question of timing,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Democrat from Nashua who opposed the bill. “I had no problems with the content of the bill, but we are in the middle of a legal battle over education funding that could completely upend our education funding, and we are also in the middle of a budget process.”

Last November, a Rockingham Superior Court judge ruled that the current per-pupil allocation was inadequate and needed to be increased by at least $3,000, to $7,356.01. That decision has since been appealed and accepted by the state Supreme Court, but no hearing date has been set.

A trial in a second case challenging the constitutionality of the state's education property tax system is scheduled to begin in September.

Inequalities in school funding have long been a problem in New Hampshire school districts, placing a burden on local taxpayers, particularly in towns with lower property values.

Representative Jonah Orion Wheeler, a Democrat from Peterborough and sponsor of the bill, said at the Senate hearing that these inequalities were already evident during his school years. He attended the relatively well-resourced ConVal Regional High School, but had friends 10 minutes away in Jaffrey who had fewer educational opportunities at Conant Middle High School.

“I introduced this bill to try to mitigate that dichotomy,” said Orion Wheeler.

But both Republican and Democratic senators said the state cannot afford to fund the bill, citing additional expenses related to funding for the youth development center and changes to state pension system benefits that would cost the state a total of $86 million.

“Given the YDC settlement and the correction for Group II pension members, a majority of committee members cannot justify approving additional funding for education at this time,” Senator Lou D'Allesandro said last Thursday before the Senate voted by voice vote to send the bill back for preliminary consideration.

Because there was no roll call, it was unclear how many senators opposed the vote. Senator Regina Birdsell, a Republican from Hampstead, was the only member of the Finance Committee to oppose it.

“I know there are some cities that need this, so I will vote against the interim study,” said Senator Birdsell.

Representative David Luneau, one of the chairs of the bipartisan House select committee on school funding that was convened earlier this year, expressed disappointment with the Senate's decision.

“The Senate is not strong when it comes to school funding policy,” said Rep. Luneau. “Granite Staters would be better served if the Senate truly listened to the bipartisan work of the House of Representatives.”

The senators' reasoning for passing the bill was questioned by Zack Sheehan, director of the NH School Funding Fairness Project.

“The day before, the Senate voted – and I know this is rather partisan – to expand vouchers,” Sheehan said in an interview. “So it's a case of, on the one hand, we don't have the money, but on the other hand, we have the money for things that we think are a higher priority.”

Jeremy Margolis can be contacted at jmargolis@cmonitor.com..

Anna Harden

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *