CLAREMONT — The mayors of 13 New Hampshire cities, including Claremont, are conveying their concerns to state leaders about anticipated revenue reductions in education funding next fiscal year, as the state legislature gears up for its next budget battle.
A coalition of New Hampshire’s 13 mayors are teaming with their local school districts on a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, the two legislative majority leaders and other state officials about projected revenue shortfalls in education entering the next school year, caused in large part by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the areas that we rely a lot on for our revenue streams is education funding,” Lovett told the Eagle Times on Monday. “[We felt] it would be best, right at the beginning of the legislative session, to communicate our concerns.”
Local education, though rarely the jurisdiction of city governments, draws considerable attention because school budgets typically represent the largest local tax burden in New Hampshire. In Claremont, for example, about 57% of local property taxes fund Claremont’s schools, 36% fund the municipal operations and 7% fund the county operations.
Many New Hampshire school districts, Claremont included, are projecting significant reductions in state education next school year due mainly to losses in student enrollment and fewer application submissions for free-or-reduced lunches.
Both issues tie directly to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, according to area school officials.
Many families have withdrawn their children from their local schools in preference to homeschool. New Hampshire’s school funding formula, known as average daily membership in attendance, funds each school approximately $3,600 to $3,700 per full-year student enrollment. This rate is calculated quarterly and will award less funds for partial-year or part-time enrollments.
Homeschooled students are not counted in the school district’s population.
Schools are also losing significant state funding from a decline in free-or-reduced lunch form applications. With most cafeteria services providing free meals to all students during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, fewer families have completed the federal application to receive free-or-reduced meals.
Unbeknownst to many families, these lunch forms are also counted by the state to award additional funds, approximately $1,800 per low income student. The state provides this aid under the assumption that students from income-challenged backgrounds statistically require additional support services and during their education.
Last week the Claremont School District announced an estimated reduction of $392,315 in state aid, known as education adequacy aid, heading into next school year. This loss represents more than 11% of what the district receives in annual adequacy aid, according to 2021-2022 budget data.
Recently, City Manager Ed Morris and Lovett, with consent of the Claremont City Council, sat down with Claremont Superintendent Michael Tempesta and Claremont School Board Chair Frank Sprague to discuss these concerns. Lovett then relayed these issues during a discussion with the other city mayors, resulting in a decision to formalize a letter.
The school board chairs from each city will also sign the letter and provide input, according to Lovett.
“We wanted it to be as collaborative as possible,” said Lovett, noting that few New Hampshire mayors have a legal jurisdiction over their local school district.
Another cost challenge to schools amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic has been the “digital divide,” with many students, whether from income-challenged backgrounds or geographical barriers, lacking Internet connectivity during a time when schools are shifting heavily to online instruction.
“This digital divide is very, very real,” Lovett said. “We have students in Claremont who cannot access their lessons remotely because they live in an area without high-speed Internet access. So if we are going to pivot and be nimble in a pandemic environment, and offer classes online, we need to have the infrastructure to support that.”
Additional to these pandemic-specific impacts, both school districts and cities continue to struggle with the costs of employee retirement pensions, Lovett said.
Prior to 2011, the state had contributed 35% to local retirement plans. Since then the state has pulled its entire contribution to local retirement and downshifted that burden entirely to the local communities.
“That in itself municipalities could absorb,” Lovett explained. “But with all these other costs accumulating, it makes it very difficult on property owners.”
Despite these current burdens, Lovett praised the state for including a massive aid package to municipalities and school districts in the 2020-2022 budget, which allowed Claremont and other communities to address a number of capital improvement projects that they had otherwise been unable to afford.
“That budget offered a lot of revenue that we were lacking for some time,” Lovett said. “It was a godsend.”
The Claremont School District used a majority of the state funds it received to create reserve trusts, including for bus replacements, building repairs and special education programs. These reserves, according to the Claremont School Board, intended to reduce overall education cost and circumvent the need for a few years to ask taxpayers to cover additional expenses.
Lovett said the letter is in its final stages of gathering signatures and will be sent “very, very soon.”
“I’m very appreciative that we have this platform of the 13 mayors, so that we can better and more effectively communicate our concerns to the state government,” Lovett said. “It has also been a great platform to share ideas and concerns with each other and learn how each of our communities are handling or individual situations. It’s very positive all the way around.”