CHARLESTOWN, N.H. — At a public forum about Charlestown’s withdrawal proposal on Monday, Scott Bushway, a Fall Mountain School Board member, told residents that despite the heated debates and tensions over the past year the experience has also produced positive outcomes.
“[While] it’s been difficult for everybody, it’s got everybody talking,” Bushway said. “It’s got everybody showing up at meetings and everybody active. And that’s a good thing.”
Members of the Fall Mountain board, along with Charlestown Schools Superintendent Lori Landry and Chief Financial Officer James Fenn, met with over 100 Charlestown residents in the Charlestown Middle School gymnasium to encourage residents to remain in the cooperative district.
On Tuesday, March 10, voters in Charlestown and the other cooperative districts — Ackworth, Alstead, Langdon and Walpole — will vote on a plan to leave Fall Mountain and form its own school district.
Though the forum’s primary theme of unity and “five towns together” partly aimed at the immediate situation, it also sparked a productive conversation about the long-term outlook.
As Charlestown School Board Chair Michael Herrington pointed out that the most fundamental problem facing Charlestown and other communities — regardless of the outcome on March 10 — will remain: New Hampshire’s inadequate education funding.
“Nothing’s going to change,” Herrington said. “If you pull out [of Fall Mountain], you’re going to have to pay more money. If you stay [in the district], you’re going to pay more money. If you want a bigger change… let’s go to Concord.”
New Hampshire’s contribution to local education ranks near the bottom in the nation, the forty-eighth lowest.
“If [the state] increased funding by 100%, it would still be ranked forty-eighth,” Fen said. “So that’s the gap between New Hampshire’s funding and the forty-seventh state.”
This fact might get disguised in many national data rankings, which typically show New Hampshire ranking in the top 10 or top 15 in education spending statistics. Yet approximately 62% of that spending is through local taxes. The state’s contribution is less than one-third on average and the federal government’s contribution is about 5%.
Last year, the state legislature increased the state’s total contribution of local education aid in an effort to tackle the problem, including restoring stabilization grant funding to their pre-2016 levels.
While the increase in base “adequacy aid” — the base amount per pupil that the state contributes to schools — is a “step in the right direction, it is only a baby step,” Fenn said.
“Whether you like [Fall Mountain’s] funding formula or not, the problems are at the state level,” Fenn said. “ If the state helped by increasing their funding we wouldn’t be here today because we wouldn’t be as worried about [Fall Mountain’s] formulas as we are.”
Charlestown resident Bob Beaudry, a former school board member, pointed out that the only way New Hampshire will fix the funding problem is through tax reform, which is a conversation that too many state legislators refuse to have.
New Hampshire and Alaska are the only two states to have neither a state sales or income tax. Alaska, however, finances its operating budget with annual revenues from the oil industry. Additionally, local Alaskan communities are allowed to impose a local sales tax, which New Hampshire does not permit.
Beaudry called New Hampshire’s reputation as a tax-free state “a farce.”
“Everyone who visits here loves it,” Beaudry said. “But each and every person who owns a piece of property pays for it. Nothing is free.”
Another possibility would be the creation of a single, state-wide property equalization rate. Under this idea, every New Hampshire community’s education tax rate would be based on the entire state’s equalized value, rather than each town basing it on one’s own community. While property-rich communities would pay at a higher rate than before, property-poor communities would pay at a lower rate.
However, each option includes strong opposition. There are currently numerous multi-municipal lawsuits against the state moving through the New Hampshire court system, while groups like the NH School Funding Fairness Project — which held an informational forum at Fall Mountain Regional High School on Monday — continue to engage local communities and encourage state legislators to support new funding approaches.
Charlestown School Board Vice-Chair Mary Henry told town residents that Fall Mountain has not joined a particular lawsuit yet, but the district still has the option to either join one or file a suit independently.
The “ConVal” lawsuit, a suit that includes the ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester School Districts, won its suit against the state in New Hampshire Superior Court last April. The state’s attorney general has filed an appeal, which will go before the state Supreme Court.
Henry told a resident that Fall Mountain missed the deadline to join that suit.
Whether a community participates in a lawsuit or not, any favorable funding outcomes from the rulings would benefit Charlestown.