CONCORD, NH — The Commission to Study School Funding has less than a year to develop a more equitable formula to distribute state aid to schools.
Meeting Monday for the first time, the commission picked a leader and agreed to hold forums around the state as the members work to develop recommendations for the next legislature that serves beginning in 2021.
“The first thing,” said newly elected chair Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, “is to understand the problem at hand.” The meeting was held in the Legislative Office Building in Concord.
And Luneau noted the problems vary around the state and involve more than just state education funding aid to school districts.
“People (have) come up to me the past few months and said, ‘Hi Dave, we already know the answer.’” Luneau told commission members. “My answer is, ‘Great, but hold that because we are not there yet.’”
This is the third commission established to determine the cost of an adequate education and the most equitable method to distribute state money for education aid to schools.
This commission is to review the education funding formula and make recommendations to ensure a uniform and equitable plan and determine if the formula complies with court decisions for all public school students.
The commission was included in one of a series of education funding bills introduced last session to address inequity issues with the current education funding system and the reduction in stabilization grants to school districts.
The compromise state budget approved in September after Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the budget lawmakers passed in June, includes about $138 million in additional state education aid, although a majority of the money is a one-time appropriation and not ongoing.
Several members of the committee noted the need to find an education funding system that would be sustainable in the future that provides additional help to the state’s property-poor school districts where property taxes have soared to pay for schools.
And several members of the committee talked about the need to hear from people all over the state as the education funding problems are diverse.
“We have to begin with a lot of listening,” Luneau said.
Several commission members suggested starting from the beginning and coming up with a new funding formula and system that is different from the current one that has not produced much help to the neediest schools.
“We have some real issues, the most significant issue is disparities between schools,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, the only Republican lawmaker on the commission.
“Chipping away at the old formula is not the way to go. We need to go back and redesign.”
Public member Bill Ardinger said he was a product of the Claremont school system when there were two major factories in town and the city could afford to spend money on public education.
He said all the work that has been done since the two Supreme Court Claremont education decisions in the 1990s has not changed the disparities in the system.
The commission needs a laser-like focus on how to direct state resources to the communities that suffer under the current system, he said.
“Massachusetts drives state resources to Lowell, not to Wellesley,” Ardinger said. “I hope we can take a holistic approach and not get lost in the minutia of what the word adequate means.”
Several commission members agreed that the first step would be to determine what constitutes an adequate education and then determine the cost.
Rep. Mary Heath, D-Manchester, said the focus needs to be on students.
“I’m very concerned we will get stuck on the financial piece,” Heath said, “and not what should our system look like and then go from there.”
Other members warned the commission should not look for only one method to address equitable funding.
Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, said there are a number of funding levels that need to be addressed and suggested recommending a number of models “so (people) don’t feel handcuffed on a single solution.”
Rep. Werner Horn, R-Franklin, who is not a commission member, said the commission has to police itself to avoid partisan voting, noting Kahn voted with other Democrats twice to not accept a federal grant for charter schools.
With $500,000 available for the commission to spend, Horn said no commission member is “allowed to become a partisan tool for someone’s agenda.”
Kahn responded the commission is to be independent and that is the approach he intends to take as do all commission members.
Four members of the commission still need to be appointed, one by the Senate President and three by the Commission chair.
Luneau said he hopes the commission will have all 16 members when it meets again on Jan. 27 at 9 a.m.
The commission will hear from representatives of the Carsey Institute of the University of New Hampshire, and the National Conference of State Legislators.
Members of the commission include educators, financial professionals and lawmakers.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org