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Forum addresses school funding

Lawyers John Tobin (L) and Doug Hall (R), leaders of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Organization gave a presentation at Littleton High School on March 28 about unfair property tax burdens and how they affect public education in New Hampshire. (Photo by Angel Larcom) (click for larger version)
April 03, 2019
LITTLETON — "Our goal is to make school funding and the hardship of property taxes central issues in public discourse," said John Tobin, one of two attorneys that recently visited Littleton High School.

On March 28, Tobin was joined by Doug Hall to present "Save Our Schools," an education funding awareness campaign currently traveling through the state.

The attorneys spent more than two hours in the Littleton High School cafeteria breaking down the details of what is currently happening, how the system is inherently unconstitutional and how the state's definition of "adequate education" leaves much to be desired. This event was well-attended by educators and administrators, community members, select board members and House representatives from multiple school districts in the North Country.

Tobin and Hall were two of the lawyers who worked on what is often called "the Claremont case," a series of New Hampshire Supreme Court cases that established the state's responsibility to fund an adequate education for New Hampshire students. In this landmark case from the mid-1990s, the Claremont School District sued the Governor of New Hampshire and challenged the constitutionality of the state's allocation of school funds.

Although Claremont eventually won the lawsuit, New Hampshire averages have not changed. Rural communities with low property values continue to suffer heavy tax burdens, schools continue to be underfunded, and the entire system creates a perpetual cycle of economic despair.

Currently, the New Hampshire Constitution sets two core requirements for K-12 public education; the state must pay for the cost of a constitutionally adequate education for every K-12 public school student, and the taxes that the state uses to pay for this education must have a uniform rate across the state.

"The problem can be fixed if your legislators hear from you," said Tobin.

"If ten people reach out, they pay attention. This system is ripe for change," he continued.

New Hampshire's education funding is ranked the lowest, below all other states in the entire country. Because New Hampshire property values determine school funding costs, communities such as Berlin, Lancaster, Lisbon, Littleton and Bethlehem fall far below the state average of $1,043,647 per pupil.

During the 2017-2018 school year, Lisbon had a rate of $325,535 per student, far below New Hampshire's equalized valuation. "People in Lisbon are heroic in the amount of taxes they have to pay for education, and they really have no choice," said Tobin.

According to recent statistics, the average New Hampshire tax rate is $12.70 per $1,000. Berlin taxpayers pay $18.82, Littleton pays $15.78 and Bethlehem's burden is $17.27 per $1000. In contrast, the affluent town of Portsmouth has not only impressive property values but the low tax burden of only $9.77 per $1,000 for public education.

Taxpayers in property-poor towns make much more significant financial sacrifices for their students, but they struggle to raise enough money to meet their schools' basic needs. For example, if Portsmouth and Lisbon were to raise the same amount per pupil for their schools, Lisbon's tax rate would need to be nearly six times higher than that of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth currently raises $17,470 per student, while Lisbon is only capable of raising $8,533 per pupil. Based on equalized school tax rates, Lisbon pays $19.05 per student while Portsmouth only pays $6.59. The gap breaks down to $116,000 per child for a thirteen-year education program.

According to Tobin and Hall, state legislators have not been inclined to make the necessary changes, and the courts have likewise been disinclined to hold the legislators in contempt of court, stating that the courts are both funded by and deferential to legislators.

"School funding is a political issue," stated Tobin.

"These issues were simmering, and no politicians were talking about them," he continued.

"They didn't do the right thing in New Hampshire because there was no grassroots movement to make it change," said Tobin.

Taking everyone by surprise, the ConVal School District recently filed a lawsuit against the state, asserting that the State has failed to live up to its responsibilities under both the New Hampshire Constitution and the Claremont decisions.

According to a recent press release issued by Tobin and Hall on March 18, "We had no involvement in, or advance warning of, ConVal School District's filing of this lawsuit. It took us by complete surprise as it did almost everyone.

"For nearly one year we have been working in good faith with large groups of legislators, school districts and community leaders from across the state to produce a legislative approach this year that will immediately address the worst inequities in the current system, and in the long term result in fair and full funding of our public schools. There are multiple bills in both the House and Senate that we support and which begin to achieve that. We are concerned that the lawsuit may complicate remedies that could bring some relief to the most distressed school districts as early as July of this year."

There are currently several House and Senate bills under review that can help make the necessary changes to stabilize education funding across New Hampshire communities. The long-term goal, House Bill 551 (HB551), seeks to establish a funded Commission to recommend new laws and funding system and passed in the House 207-148.

Hall and Tobin strongly encourage property owners to reach out to their representatives.

Varney Smith
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