Why NH must step up its education funding

More money from the state is critical to promote reforms, flexibility in municipalities
Matt Gerding

Matt Gerding

Current conversations surrounding Black Lives Matter and calls to defund the police have spurred a re-examination of the investments made by our communities. Local elected officials across the state and the nation are heeding calls to rethink the ways in which community services in their towns and cities are funded, with activists calling for the creation of new social programs that support community wellness initiatives, and for monies to support these programs to be taken from local police forces.

In New Hampshire, considerations for these efforts should start with an autopsy of how our communities are, in fact, funded.

According to NH Business Review, two-thirds of tax revenue for state and local budgetsare funded through property tax. Proponents of this town-by-town reliance on local property taxes claim that it provides local control over spending. However, multiple New Hampshire Supreme Court decisions, such as the series of Claremont cases, provide strong evidence to support the argument that this system of taxation is rooted in injustice and inequity towards many communities in New Hampshire.

The property tax is regressive and burdensome to property-poor communities and communities of color. The current property tax structure not only perpetuates wealth disparities from generation to generation, but it also provides little to no flexibility in the budgets of economically disadvantaged communities, while wealthier communities are allotted lower tax rates and beyond-ample funds to use on city and town initiatives.

This system of taxation disproportionately leads students of color to be in larger class sizes, with less experienced teachers, have fewer enrichments and extracurricular activities and fewer opportunities.

Reducing or eliminating our reliance on local property taxes to fund our schools is the first step to providing students of color, as well as students who are more economically disadvantaged, equal and equitable opportunities, resources and futures. A reimagining of state-level taxes could finally provide budgetary flexibility to communities that have long operated on shoe-string budgets, and year-to-year cuts in services.

Many police forces, like many schools in disadvantaged communities, are overburdened with responsibility. The conversation surrounding defunding the police is about creating healthier communities, with better, more targeted community health services, and not about creating an unsafe, anarchical society.

Creating these community wellness programs would certainly be a slow process that would require a well-planned transition period of offloading and shifting responsibilities away from our police forces into services that assist with community mental health, addiction, housing, transportation, food and education. Thus anyone who is listening to the voices of Black and Indigenous people of color, need to support those proposed initiatives. The current national conversation is about saving and improving lives.

But with the extensive and never-ending list of needs for many communities, there are too many budgetary holes to be patched and necessary expenses go unfunded. Relying on massive structural change on a community-by-community basis will likely mean that, once again, only the wealthy, and likely white, communities will have the budgetary flexibility to make these changes.

Communities in New Hampshire that have the highest populations of Black and Indigenous people of color, as well as a more economically disadvantaged population, have the highest tax rates. This has been made clear, time and time again, and serves as the basis for the arguments that fuel the education funding lawsuits. This is why New Hampshire needs to intervene and provide more flexibility to communities.

As an educator, I know that the future of community health and safety, and the potential of diverse voices and opportunities, begins in our schools.

My argument here is cities and towns most impacted by structural racism, disinvestment and wealth suppression will not be able to budgetarily and statutorily make these shifts. The same can be said for rural, economically disadvantaged communities.

That is why we need a statewide re-examination of how our tax dollars are being spent and distributed, and we need the state to undergo a dramatic and swift change in how our schools are being funded.

Providing adequate school funding to all communities will help alleviate budgetary constraints on economically disadvantaged communities. Ultimately as well, more budgetary flexibility allows more local control over how to design and implement community wellness initiatives.

As it currently stands, New Hampshire very strictly limits what types of taxes communities can levy against their taxpayers, with the vast majority of local revenues required raised through the property tax.

For example, in Somersworth, the local property tax makes up approximately 73% of revenues. The remaining slivers of the pie were filled with monies raised from interest, penalties, fees, licenses, permits and other local sources. Of the entire budget, only 9% of revenues came from state and federal sources. One or both of these two features needs to change if municipalities ever want to be able to have true flexibilities in their budgets. Right now, the budget funding cycle is more often than not a practice of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

As a city councilor in one of New Hampshire’s most diverse cities, I’m calling on our leaders in the State House to make serious tax policy changes to address these disparities, inequities, and injustices. It’s about time that we consider a form of taxation that works for not just wealthy white people, but also Black and Indigenous people of color and others who are economically disadvantaged. There are many ways to do this, and many strong minds in the State House that can devise plans to fix this problem. But I strongly caution against politicization and inaction on this issue, as this will only continue to perpetuate injustice throughout New Hampshire.

Matt Gerding is a city councilor at-large and a teacher in Somersworth.

Categories: Government, Opinion