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Tobin suggests democratic approach to education funding

July 11, 2018
BERLIN — Attorney John Tobin, who is working with the city on coming up with solutions for school funding, is suggesting a democratic approach instead of a legal approach in dealing with school funding.

At a city council meeting last Monday, July 2, Tobin told the council that he first started practicing law in Berlin and learned about school funding at a city meeting. He further studied the New Hampshire way of funding education which he said is "harsh and unfair." Using that as part of his inspiration, he became involved in the Claremont case that took place about 20 years ago. The case was successful in changing legislation.

"Berlin sacrifices a lot for its schools," he said. "With less valuable property, it's hard to raise the money that is needed for education."

He added that taxpayers care about our schools, and "that is something to be proud of."

He compared Portsmouth to Berlin, stating that Portsmouth averages about $1 million of property value per student while Berlin has about $188,000 per student.

"Berlin would have to tax ten times the rate to achieve the same amount as Portsmouth," he said.

Although he said that progress was made in the Claremont lawsuit, things are once again back to the way they once were.

With the stabilization grants cutting $220,000 of education aid every year, property-poor communities like Berlin are suffering from the loss. The state is planning to gradually phase out the grants all together.

Tobin is suggesting taking a more measured democratic approach instead of a legal approach. Involving the public in the process, he said, should begin with information forums designed to send the message that the time has come to get active and demand a more equitable funding formula.

"Every politician should be asked what they are doing about school funding," he said.

The forum would have business people, local residents, parents, students and anyone who wants to be informed about the current system and how they can help.

Tobin reassured that he is optimistic that this will "move better and faster than the last time."

"Funding education should be direct and paid for with proportional taxes," said the attorney. "School funding is a creation of politics, and it can change. We could have a true statewide property tax, where the money goes to the DRA and is then divided among communities in a fair way.

"In the interim, there is stabilization aid that was supposed to even out the disparity. The aid was cut from the State budget and is reduced yearly. There can be an effort to stop the reduction and perhaps restore the funding. There are many New Hampshire towns and cities that are affected by the cuts and a grassroots campaign to our Legislators could change things."

As far as a legal challenge to the current funding system, Tobin said he wrote an article to the New Hampshire Bar News in an effort to help educate young lawyers about the Claremont case.

Tobin feels the state has a very broad definition of adequate education. On average, it costs $15,000 to $16,000 to educate a student, and the state is paying only $3,500.

"We have to make up the difference with property taxes," said Tobin. "Since the State is paying only a portion, all local districts are paying to meet the State's obligation."

Tobin has advocated for a true statewide property tax which would slightly raise taxes in some towns, but, he said, taxes would decrease in about three-quarters of towns and cities.

A lawsuit, he stated, would require young lawyers to be recruited and a need for school people to "review what it takes to educate students and make the point that it is not equal throughout the state."

He stated that a lawsuit would take a long time and that a democracy track would be quicker.

Tobin insists that adjusting the current property taxation is the best solution.

Councilor Michael Rozek noted that some business owners would be able to talk "in depth about the dynamics of doing business in a City with low property values."

Tobin said that a good "push back" would be coming up with resources including combining SAU's and "to work together to conserve."

Councilor Lucie Remillard said she supports a forum.

"The average person should leave the meeting with a clear knowledge of education funding and what questions they need to ask," she said.

She added that wealthier communities have the means to pay better salaries for teachers and have better, updated equipment and better classes.

Mayor Paul Grenier suggested that the first thing the upcoming candidates should be asked is "what are you going to do about property taxes and education."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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