NEWPORT — Residents and educators across Sullivan County attended public hearing on education last night, with the majority of speakers calling for the county delegates to overturn Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of the proposed state budget — which included millions of dollars in additional education funding — or back the funding as a separate bill.
“We need this education funding,” said Lisa Ferrigno, a Newport teacher at Richards School. “We lost 27 teachers during 2017 and 2018 in Newport. This year we lost 33. We can’t keep doing this.”
Over 33 community members attended the hearing with the state representatives. Residents, school board members, and teachers took turns at the podium to address the delegation, nearly all echoing a similar criticism of the state’s funding system, saying that it causes economic stress for many people living on fixed incomes, and is dividing New Hampshire into a state of haves and have-nots according to their location and the value of its real estate.
“I remember someone in this room say once that if the meteor had just hit Newport instead of Sunapee, the conversation would be different,” said Brendan Minnihan, interim superintendent of the Newport School District.
Minnihan said the funding reflects a historical pattern by the state, representing decades of reneged promises and obligations by the state and incremental downshifting of the funding responsibility onto local communities. In addition to the state’s decision to phase out stabilization grants — which Minnihan reminded delegates was originally disparity aid — the state has reduced its contribution to teachers’ retirement funds, from 35% to 0%. Minnihan said the state’s original promise to contribute at 35% is what convinced school districts to start the retirement funds in the first place.
Newport resident Seth Wilner said that struggle in rural communities like Newport is splitting communities.
“[In budget votes] we’re getting half-and-half splits in the community,” Wilner said. “People were pointing fingers when the rec building passed, blaming the school. This needs to be solved.”
While speakers acknowledged that the proposed education funding by the legislature does not solve the longterm problem, the money would be a step in the right direction, and is desperately needed by communities in the short-term.
Rhonda Callum King, a school board member in Newport, told the delegates that currently 77% of Newport’s school budget pays for employees and 20% for special education, which leaves only three to five percent of the budget for everything else (depending on how many employees the district hires).
“We have three to five percent to fund every book, every computer and the rest,” King said. “That is not something that can be maintained.”
Newport resident John Lunn said that New Hampshire’s failure to adequately fund its education represents a pervasive attitude of misplaced priorities.
“We talk about taking a tax pledge, and [portray] this idea that we’re supposed to live within our means,” Lunn said. “We are the fourth wealthiest state in the country. Our means are pretty good … maybe we should start to think along the lines of educating our children collectively.”
John Streeter of Charlestown shared a similar sentiment, pointing out that if the state believes in funding roads that cross multiple towns, the state should think similarly toward education.”
“At some point you will all use a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, and tradesmen,” Streeter said. “We force the education for those resources on the backs of communities, who will probably not see the results of what they spent, because these kids will go to Concord or Manchester to earn their wage. But Concord and Manchester currently aren’t paying Charlestown, Newport or Claremont to educate that workforce that they are getting.”
Croydon residents Ian and Jody Underwood, however, spoke against the need for additional funding, pointing out evidence that shows public education cost increasing exponentially over the past decades but the cost increases don’t guarantee quality education.
Ian Underwood said that students can receive quality learning far more cheaply than educators suggest, particularly through the educational resources available through today’s digital technology. Moreover, Underwood said that educational money cannot influence factors such as a student’s motivation to learn.
“If a student doesn’t want to learn, who can make him?” Underwood asked.