Republican lawmaker proposes bill to dissolve cooperative school districts

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NH House Bill 1679 would require all cooperative or regional school districts to dissolve by 2025. Photo/ Ivan Aleksic

Story Produced by New Hampshire Bulletin


It’s a timeless dispute. For decades, residents in New Hampshire cooperative school districts have squabbled over the necessity – and financial impact – of their districts. And for decades, state lawmakers have floated ideas on how to make it easier for individual towns to pull out.

This year, one House lawmaker is opting for a different approach: dissolving the districts entirely.

“It’s a lot simpler, cleaner solution, I believe,” said Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican, speaking on a bill he is sponsoring.

Cordelli is the chief architect of House Bill 1679, which would require all cooperative or regional school districts to dissolve by 2025 – and mandate that districts begin preparing to do so this year.

The bill takes a one-size-fits-all approach that might not survive in its initial form through the legislative process. Some fellow Republican lawmakers have suggested that they are open to amending it to allow flexibility. But the legislation strikes at a longstanding debate in the state: how to manage the state’s 30 cooperative school districts in a way that gives towns and residents power and autonomy.

To public school representatives and unions, the bill is an assault on the foundations of many public school districts, and could dismantle dozens of regional arrangements that have helped under-resourced towns better provide educational opportunities for residents.

“We’ve heard the argument that there’s a lot of problems in cooperative districts, but there already is a solution for towns that want to get out of cooperative districts: It exists in current law,” said Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Hampshire. “This proposed solution is like grabbing a sledgehammer when a scalpel will do.”

But Cordelli and other Republicans say the cooperative system is outdated, expensive, and unnecessarily rigid. Tearing it down, they argue, would allow smaller towns to negotiate agreements with surrounding school districts that make more financial sense.

District-to-district tuition agreements provide “a negotiated tuition between one district and another,” Cordelli said in an interview. “It doesn’t get into complicated formulas of attendance and equalized valuation of the towns involved in the cooperative district.”

HB 1679 would likely break the state’s 30 regional cooperative school districts – covering 117 towns – into 90 new school districts across New Hampshire, according to analysis provided to lawmakers by the Department of Education.

The divide over the bill is driven by differing visions around local control – and differing ideas of the value of the town-to-town educational partnerships. Under the current law, new cooperative districts must be approved by voters, school boards, and the State Board of Education. Once formed, the district contains a cooperative school board whose officers are elected by voters in all participating towns.

Many of New Hampshire’s districts were created prior to 1963, the year the Legislature passed a law formalizing the process. As the districts have evolved, and town populations and tax bases changed, cooperative school districts have often increased the cost for individual towns to participate. Those calculations depend on the equalized value of each of the member towns’ properties – as well as the number of students each town is sending.

Advocates of the process say that those costs help to cover district-wide investments in infrastructure, teaching programs, staff, transportation, nursing, and other necessities. Critics of the districts counter that the present system can cause the costs for member towns to increase substantially over time.

And if residents in one of the participating towns want to leave the cooperative district, the process is complicated. In order to initiate the withdrawal process, the cooperative school board must begin a review of the feasibility and sustainability of the process, current statute states. Depending on the outcome of that review, the school board might send the State Board of Education two competing reports – one advocating withdrawal and one arguing against it. The state board then must decide which report to accept. Only if the state board accepts the withdrawal report does the matter come before town voters.

If the matter goes onto the ballot, residents in all towns in the cooperative district have a say in whether one town may leave the district.

For Cordelli, the result is a system that can leave residents in some towns feeling trapped. Unwilling to pay the costs to the districts, but unable to amass the numbers of votes necessary to overpower the other towns, residents of those towns can feel that cooperative school districts are the only option, Cordelli said.

Lawmakers have wrestled with potential changes to the cooperative school district system for years, including through a legislative study committee in 2017. Cordelli’s approach would be far-reaching and final. But he said he was amenable to amendments that could give cooperatives the flexibility to continue if their member towns chose to. One Republican member of the House Education Committee has indicated interest in those amendments.

“Since this (bill) has come in, other cooperative districts that are very happy have asked: Do they still have to dissolve when they’re very happy, or can this be somehow amended so that they don’t have to?” said Rep. Alicia Lekas, a Hudson Republican.

HB 1679 would require all towns to form their own school district, assume control of the existing district, or devise tuition agreements to send students to schools in neighboring towns.

But public school representatives say the proposal would upend the agreements that have given many towns stability. The bill would affect all regional school districts, in addition to cooperative school districts, such as the Contoocook Valley School District in Peterborough and Merrimack Valley School District in Penacook.

Forcing the towns in the 30 cooperative districts to negotiate new tuition agreements could be costlier for some towns, opponents say.

“It’s certainly a resource issue, not only fiscally, but just in terms of getting staffing and superintendents and those kinds of things that would need to be put into effect if this were to go forward,” said Becky Wilson, director of governmental relations for the New Hampshire School Board Association, in testimony to the House Education Committee. “The resources in all areas, I think would be certainly tapped out to a very high extent.”

Teresa Wyman, a retired nurse, has seen the debates play out in her backyard. Some residents in Canterbury have begun a petition to separate from the district the town shares with Belmont.

Wyman disagrees with the effort. But she argued that those decisions should be made by the residents in the cooperative school districts, not lawmakers.

“No one sponsoring this bill represents my district or me,” Wyman said. “I do not want them dictating this level of control over my town’s schools.”


Story republished with permission under NH Bulletin’s Creative Commons license.


 

About this Author

ethan-dewitt

Ethan DeWitt

ReporterNH Bulletin

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Ethan DeWitt is a reporter for New Hampshire Bulletin.

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