Board opposes change that cuts aid

MERRIMACK – It’s bad enough to think the School District stands to receive $2.5 million less in state aid to education next year.

What makes school officials shudder is the thought that under a constitutional amendment favored by some lawmakers and endorsed by Gov. Craig Benson, the town could get no state education money within several years.

The School Board on Monday voted 5-0 to go on record opposing the amendment.

After hearing a presentation from state Rep. Peter Batula, R-Merrimack, and House Majority Leader David Hess, R-Hooksett, the board also voted unanimously to support the so-called “Fair” plan that adjusts the state education aid to benefit 114 “middle-income” towns, including Merrimack and most others in the Nashua area.

That plan, however, is dead in the water unless a number of communities jump on board and apply pressure to support it, Batula warned.

The constitutional amendment would seize control of education funding from the courts and return to the Legislature the power to decide how much and where future state aid to public schools should be directed.

More than a dozen constitutional amendment proposals have failed to get the required 60 percent majority vote in the House of Representatives and Senate to reach the voters on this subject.

Should an amendment pass, the potential impact on education funding has also prompted the state Board of Education to stand unanimously in opposition.

“We need to have some constitutional protection for education funding in the state of New Hampshire,” said Ken Coleman, chairman of the local School Board.

If left in the hands of the Legislature, school funding could return to the days before the state Supreme Court’s 1997 Claremont II decision.

That would mean a return to zero dollars in state education aid, Coleman said.

In Claremont II, the court ruled that relying solely on local property taxes to fund schools was unconstitutional. The case prompted lawmakers to establish an amount needed to fund an “adequate education” in New Hampshire schools

As for adjustments to the education funding formula, the town received $9.48 million this fiscal year but would stand to get only $6.81 million next year.

A joint committee is now examining the funding formula. In the meantime, Hess, a member of that committee, and Batula are proposing an adjustment that would give Merrimack $8.51 million next year – still less than what the school district received now. “If we were to go to vote next week on the bill, we would be defeated,” Batula told the School Board.

For the “Fair” plan to succeed, a number of school boards and boards of selectmen would have to endorse it and persuade their local delegation of lawmakers to back it.

The current funding formula favors the poorest communities and some of the richer ones at the expense of the towns in the middle such as Merrimack, Hess noted. A vote on a new funding formula might occur early in the next legislative session, he added.