Attorneys John Tobin (left) and Artur Volinsky (right) hosted a forum, Save our Schools (SOS), last Thursday at the Berlin Middle School auditorium outlining the problems within the state's education funding system and how the inequities built into it affect property-poor communities like Berlin. (Photo by Jody Houle) (click for larger version)
September 12, 2018BERLIN – A forum outlining the problems within the state's system of funding education and how it affects property-poor communities like Berlin was held at the Berlin Middle School auditorium last Thursday.
Attorneys Andru Volinsky and John Tobin hosted the event. The two contributed in Supreme Court cases in the 1990's which resulted in litigation that made the state responsible for providing an "adequate" education for schools. While Volinsky doesn't want to sue the state while he is in office, Tobin, however, wants to with the help of a legal team.
"The goal is to make sure everybody knows how it works," said Volinsky as he opened up the meeting.
At the meeting, it was established that property-poor communities, like Berlin, are affected the most since the state bases its education funding process on property taxes.
Volinsky, who ensures his public advocacy on the topic, presented his talk on "equalized valuation per pupil" which depicts how much a town has in taxable property per student. He stated that property-poor towns like Berlin have higher tax rates for residents but have less money for schools. Communities that are near a lake, seacoast, a state highway or skiing resort raise more money for schools at lower tax rates.
"That is incredibly unfair and arbitrary," said Tobin.
The property tax based system "is 72 percent reliant on local property tax" to fund education, said Volinksy.
A slide show outlined the numbers per schools within the state. The state average for school funding is around $980,000 and Berlin is the lowest in the state at $282,760. The Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne cooperative receives near the average at $916,603.
"Berlin will never be able to keep up with communities that are at or above the average," said Volinsky.
When a town like Berlin is affected by the state system, property taxes go up. Berlin is the highest, at $48.49 per $1,000 of valuation.
A New Hampshire house bill reducing education stabilization grants passed in 2015 and took effect in 2016 that is set to cut, in all, $5.5 million of education aid to the city of Berlin. The bill allows the state to gradually cut the stabilization grants in districts throughout the state by 4 percent every year for 25 years ultimately eradicating the grants. Berlin is drawn against losing $220,000 annually in education aid. The state revised its adequacy formula and the stabilization grants set in 2012 were to offset the effects of the changes made. The formula decreases reimbursements for special education and eliminated money for districts that have the lowest tax base per student. The stabilization grants were mostly for towns that are property-poor and have lower incomes.
Volinsky stated that it costs 55 cents on the tax rate per year to make up for the $220,000 loss.
Within the 25 years as the grants phase out, Volinsky said the tax rate will have to go up $11 to compensate for the $5.5 million loss Berlin will suffer from.
Tobin talked about the lawsuits they had in the past, and mentioned that education isn't mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; however, the state Constitution has Article 83, established by John Adams, which holds the state responsible for providing an adequate education. The state has tried to re-write that amendment on numerous occasions.
Tobin wants to overturn the cuts and is advocating for a future lawsuit. In the meantime, both Tobin and Volinsky advise everyone to join the fight and force legislators to reconsider the disproportionate system that affects property-poor communities.
"The state has never come close to providing a constitutional adequate education formula," said Tobin.
"This is a crisis, but also an opportunity," he continued. "Team up with other communities and tell legislators to stop the four percent cuts. Start a coalition."
Volinsky added that not only is education affected, it hurts tax payers and the economy and stops businesses from coming here due to high tax rates.
There has been talk about regionalization and combining SAU's, but Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier expressed that there is "a big elephant in the room" with Berlin getting the state cuts.
"Why would Gorham or Milan jump into that?" the Mayor asked.
Executive Councilor Joe Kenney mentioned that towns and cities should look into remedies at the municipal level versus the state level with things like exemptions and reductions.
Superintendent of Schools Corrine Cascadden closed the meeting by stating that the school has recently lost 57 students and the cuts are really hurting the school.
"We are at a critical junction," she said. "We don't want a school closure."
She feared that programs like hockey could eliminated.