Op-ed: Support much needed school funding legislation

By Kathy Hubert

April 9, 2024

There are two bills being voted on at the upcoming House session that aim to do something about the state’s failure to adequately fund education. HB 1583 and HB 1656 together will add about $120 million to the state’s contribution to school districts over the next two years. And importantly, most of the money is being directed to students and communities where it is needed most.

In Newport, New Hampshire, where I live, school funding is a real challenge. Newport residents struggle with some of the highest property taxes in the state, while the median income for a family is $65,000, 25 percent less than the state family median. This year, this economic reality once again prevented the Newport community from passing a modest school budget because of a $1 tax impact to support the basic need for certified teachers.

Newport’s teachers are some of the lowest paid in the state, resulting in our district being unable to fill 5 teaching positions, and 26 percent of our staff not being certified because of our inability to pay competitive wages. The lack of staff has meant that some of our freshman high school students are being dismissed at noon as we cannot fill their schedules with courses.

Many Newport students have complex instructional and social needs, 49 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch, and 26 percent of our budget is spent on special education services. The instructional turnover that we have been experiencing year after year has negatively affected the academic success of our students, as evidenced by our elementary school being designated as a CSI school (school in need of improvement) by the state.

We fear that we will see a further exodus of staff this year because of the lack of competitive pay and have serious concerns about how Newport students’ instructional needs and academic growth will be met.

It’s not just Newport that faces challenges like this. Communities all around New Hampshire are faced with difficult choices around their school budgets because the state provides so little funding for our public schools.

Last year, a NH Superior Court ruling determined that the state’s current base adequacy payment, the amount of money that it sends to districts for every student so they can provide an “adequate” education, was unconstitutionally low at $4,100 per pupil, and needed to be raised to at least $7,356.01 per pupil. It’s worth pointing out that the average cost of educating a New Hampshire student exceeded $20,000 last school year, so even this higher adequacy amount falls far short of covering what schools actually need.

While the bills being voted on this week do not go far enough to fulfill that court order, they are a step in the right direction by the legislature. HB 1583 does increase that base adequacy amount from $4,100 to $4,404 per pupil beginning with the 2025 school year, but more immediately, it adds over $60 million in targeted aid this fall.

The new funding is targeted in two ways. $39 million is earmarked for fiscal capacity disparity aid, which directs money to communities with lower property values, like Newport. Places with lower property values have a harder time funding their schools, because they need to set higher local tax rates to be able to raise the same amount of money as towns with higher property values. Another $25 million in the bill would be paid out to communities based on the percentage of their student body that is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

The Legislative Budget Assistant released a town-by-town analysis of this bill, and in Newport we stand to receive over $655,000 in new state funds in 2025, almost 8% more than we would under the current law.

HB 1656 focuses on special education funding. As part of its adequacy funding, the state pays money in addition to base adequacy for students who have additional needs. These funds are called differentiated aid.

Currently, the state pays districts $2,100 for every student receiving special education services. Just like with base adequacy, this amount falls far short of the actual cost of special education. Last school year, the average additional cost of special education services was $29,556 per student receiving those services.

HB 1656 takes a small bite out of that difference, and increases total differentiated aid for special education by $17.5 million. It also changes the adequacy formula by creating different categories based how intensive the additional needs of a student are, and sends more money for students with greater needs.

These bills have received bipartisan support at every step of the legislative process. They use money from the surplus in the Education Trust Fund, and every single district in the state will get more funding as a result. That means new opportunities for students and a break in local property taxes.

The passage of these two bills, though not a long-term solution to our school funding crisis, are critical to Newport this upcoming year. The additional funding Newport will receive from the state as a result of these bills will enable us to increase our teachers wages, help prevent further staff turnover, and provide some needed tax relief to our overburdened local taxpayers.

Newport’s children, and all the children in the state, deserve the “broad exposure to the social, economic, and political realities of today’s society is essential for our students to compete, contribute, and flourish in the twentieth century-first century” that was promised to them by the Claremont rulings. The funding in these bills brings our state a little closer to fulfilling that promise.

Author

  • Kathy Hubert

    Kathy Hubert has lived in Newport, NH, for 40 years. She is a former business owner of Hubert’s Department Stores Inc. and is currently retired. A proud mother of eight grown children and five grandchildren, Kathy spends her time advocating for school funding fairness.

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