On school funding, there’s hope for common ground

More public discussion about school funding and property taxes will advance public understanding of these vital issues

The current school funding system, with its crushing property tax rates, is decimating the school systems and economies of dozens of New Hampshire towns and cities, with more to follow. This crisis has pushed me to come out of retirement and start recruiting lawyers for a possible new school funding lawsuit. But I am also part of a growing group of people who are trying to bring the issues of school funding and property taxes into the center of public discussion and debate, during the coming election season and beyond.

With help from many people — especially Doug Hall, former legislator and former NH Center for Public Policy Studies director — Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and I are holding “Education Funding 101” forums around the state, and a number of people are raising these issues in letters to the editor and op-ed columns, as well as through social media. These efforts have already made a difference — the issue is getting more attention, and this momentum seems to be building on itself.

One of the most thoughtful responses has been a column written by Dave Juvet, speaking on behalf of the Business and Industry Association, which was published in NH Business Review’s Aug. 17-30 issue (“It’s time for targeted aid to NH schools”).

In his column, Juvet states quite clearly that the central problem inherent in the current school funding system is the inability of property-poor school districts to raise the money they need to support their schools at a basic level. He also says that the BIA would not support a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature, in his words, “to shirk its responsibility to provide an adequate education.”

His prescription for the problem is targeting state aid to the districts that need it. He laments what he sees as a requirement derived from the Claremont decisions to distribute aid “uniformly (on a per-pupil basis) across the state.” The NH Supreme Court’s opinions actually allow for some flexibility about the distribution of aid to meet local needs, but are quite clear and firm that the taxes used to meet the state’s education obligation must be “uniform in rate” across the state.

Juvet notes that businesses are the largest contributor to the state’s Education Trust Fund through the business taxes. Unfortunately, this fund pays for only about 20 percent of the actual cost of K-12 public education. The rest is paid for by local businesses and homeowners at greatly disproportional property tax rates.

I appreciate Juvet’s blunt observation that “the so-called ‘statewide property tax’ is really just a pass-through.”

From both the substance and the tone of Juvet’s column, I am encouraged about the possibilities for finding common ground with the business community and other stakeholders. Although he did not dwell on this in his column, I am confident that the BIA would agree that the current funding system discourages business formation and economic development in the many New Hampshire cities and towns with low property tax bases and high property tax rates.

The current system also pushes municipalities away from encouraging the creation of more affordable workforce housing, an issue of longstanding concern to the BIA, out of fear of increasing school budgets. Thus, the current school funding system creates serious policy impediments to the economic and population growth that everyone agrees should be fostered across the state for the sake of our long-term prosperity.

More discussions, more sharing of data and perspectives, and more efforts to stimulate public discourse about these issues will help everyone. While a lawsuit may ultimately be necessary, even if it is successful, the issues of school funding and burdensome property taxes will still have to be debated by our citizens and leaders and then resolved by our democratic institutions, particularly the Legislature.

All of this leads me to say that I hope that many elected officials, business leaders and ordinary citizens will speak up about the value of more public discussion about school funding and property taxes. This would be a great benefit to our state’s civic life and to advancing public understanding of these vital issues, which are not going to go away. I hope that we can all work together to make this happen.

John Tobin of Concord was a legal aid lawyer for 40 years, including 18 as executive director of NH Legal Assistance. He was part of the team of lawyers who represented students, parents and school districts in the Claremont case.

Categories: Opinion