Commission: Don’t stall education funding recommendations

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Students are pictured outside the now-closed Brown Elementary School in Berlin in this file photo. Photo/Paula Tracy

CONCORD, NH — Lawmakers should be urged to use the Education Funding Commission’s recommendations to begin changing the system as soon as possible.

That was the commission’s consensus as it met to review and suggest changes to a final report on its work that will be voted on Nov. 30.

Commission members spent more than two-hours parsing the findings and recommendations in the report that will receive a final review next week before it is given to legislative leaders and Gov. Chris Sununu.

Consultants hired by the commission to study the state education funding system found what many have known for some time: that students in property poor-communities do not perform as well as students from wealthier communities that provide greater educational opportunities to their children.

The consultants, American Institutes for Research, also proposed a statewide property tax system to level the playing field without spending additional money on public education.

The commission is recommending a fundamental change in how the state defines an adequate education, and how it determines state aid to school districts by considering student and community needs.

The draft report said lawmakers should address the major recommendations with a phased approach over three biennia but several board members said the legislature should address the recommendations as soon as possible.

Commission member and former Department of Revenue Administration Commission John Beardmore was the first to raise the issue and others soon agreed.

Commission chair Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, said they discussed a phased approach so as not to “shock the system.”

He did not believe they needed to specify a specific time period but noted one legislature cannot bind another legislature to follow its directives.

Former state Sen. Iris Estabrook said to phase in the recommendations over three biennia “is asking for trouble.”

There needs to be language to implement the recommendations as soon as possible, she said.

Others agreed including Jeff McLynch, project director for the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project.

“If the Commission still chooses to endorse a five-year phase-in, it should clarify language in the draft report detailing how that phase-in could be accomplished, as one description of it could be open to multiple interpretations,” he said during the public comment period at the end of the meeting.

He also urged commission members to adopt the proposed statewide property tax as the funding mechanism to provide both student and taxpayer equity.

“The draft report does outline three models of how the costs of an adequate education might be met, but only one – a single statewide property tax at a rate sufficient to provide full state funding – would likely ameliorate existing inequities while complying with constitutional mandates,” McLynch said. “The Commission should endorse that model in combination with a robust, state-funded property tax relief program for low- and moderate-income taxpayers.”

But another person who spoke at the end of the meeting disagreed with using a statewide property tax for funding.

Portsmouth’s assistant city attorney Jane Ferrini said the state should find another source of money to pay its share of school funding, not resurrect “donor towns” like Portsmouth.

She noted education is not the only area where the state has down-shifted costs.

Ferrini said her city lost over $7 million in revenue-sharing and had to pay an additional $20 million when the state stopped paying 35 percent of retirement costs for municipal and school employees.

And the state has not “caught up” with what it owes cities and towns for their share of the rooms and meals tax revenue that was also discontinued, costing Portsmouth $3.5 million.

The commission also decided to include a section in the report indicating what each school district would receive in state aid under the new distribution system, which was also a suggestion from McLynch.

The commission is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Nov 30 for its final meeting.

Garry Rayno may be reached at