NEWPORT — Two architects of a ground-breaking lawsuit that Claremont school district won against the state of New Hampshire presented “Education Funding 101” to the taxpaying public Tuesday night. School funding is in a crisis, they said, and it is going to get worse if no one acts.
John Tobin and Andru Volinsky, attorneys who worked on a lawsuit known as Claremont v. Governor of New Hampshire, which was begun in the 1980s, said the state has never met the settlement requirements and school funding is worse than ever.
Superintendent of Newport schools Cindy Gallagher emphasized the importance of the forum. When she joined the district in 2015, it was implementing a 41-percent reduction in its work force. More layoffs followed in ensuing years. “We’re in a crisis,” said Gallagher.
Gallagher described a district where the remaining teachers are filling in positions outside their area of expertise. Elementary school teachers are teaching career and tech courses (CTE) in addition to their elementary grades, she said. The pressure discourages teachers, she said, and the pay drives them to seek jobs elsewhere.
Lower property values, higher tax rates
“School funding is a math problem,” Volinsky told the audience. Around 130 people sat on folding chairs in the Richards School gym, while Volinsky scrolled through a series of slides.
On the screen, Volinsky displayed two equations: 20 x 2 = 40, and 4 x 2 = 8. If the tax rate is 2 – the unchanging factor – and the total value of property taxes in a school district is 20 or 4, “Even if you double your tax rate, you’re still going to be behind. That’s the difference between Claremont and Portsmouth,” he said.
Claremont has one of the highest property tax rates in the state, since the collective value of properties in the district is low. Other districts with higher property values are able to tax at a much lower rate.
“How this plays out over the career of a child,” Volinsky said, changing slides. “Claremont has a tax rate ten times higher, and raises half as much money.”
Taking Lebanon as an example, Volinsky showed that over 13 years in school, a student there would have almost $160,000 more spent on her education than a student in Claremont. “That’s a big number to overcome, and state aid isn’t sufficient to overcome it.”
With an equalized tax rate of $14.35 per $1,000 of taxed value, Lebanon raises $22,250 per pupil per year. Claremont, with an equalized tax rate of $24.82, raises $10,163 per pupil. Local property taxes fund 71 percent of school budgets.
State ignored court
A case brought by Laconia Schools against the state in 1971 established that the state has a constitutional obligation to educate its citizens. In 1984-86 the Jesseman case followed, alleging the state failed to fund all schools equally. That case produced the “Augenblick formula” by which the state would calculate aid to schools so children in poorer districts received equal funding.
The suit brought by Claremont resulted in two decisions, known as Claremont I and II. Claremont I, decided in 1993, affirmed the state’s educational duty; Claremont II in 1997 said that the taxes levied to meet this obligation must be uniform in rate across the state. Claremont II also said that education is a fundamental right.
“Then-governor John Sununu settled the case,” said Volinsky. “The Augenblick formula was supposed to decide the fair percent for taxation.”
Again the court order was ineffective, and in 2006 the Supreme Court again found the school funding system unconstitutional. Gov. John Lynch then tried to amend the state constitution.
Volinsky turned to a photo taken in the 1990s, of a broken blackboard with the teacher’s writing on it. Another photograph showed a child’s desk adjacent to a bathroom stall: in Allentown school district, so little funding was available for special education that the kids had their desks placed in the bathroom.
“It’s a profoundly unfair system,” said Tobin. “Teachers are heroic. They’re trying to do the best they can for all their pupils, and also do the right thing by their elderly taxpayers.”
The lottery, despite its much-touted role in funding education, contributed $76 million in fiscal year 2017 and $79 million in fiscal year 2018. That’s 2.5 percent of education funding in the state. Total revenues for the lottery were over $300 million both years.
Action plan: talk to candidates
Tobin pointed out that the property taxes, as well as the impoverished schools, stifle economic development. Asked if they were contemplating a “Claremont III” suit, Tobin said he’s in the process of recruiting lawyers for a new legal case, but his higher priority right now is to encourage public discussion and debate.
The two lawyers encouraged audience members to start asking candidates for public office what they are going to do about school funding. School funding through property taxes is regressive and unfair, and falls especially hard on people with fixed incomes, like retirees.
“Ask, ‘will they fix the stabilization aid? At least stop the bleeding?” said Volinsky.
Tobin said, “The preferred solution would be for our elected leaders to face and resolve this issue through our democratic institutions, most especially the legislature. A lawsuit may only become necessary if the legislature does not step up.”
During the question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation, one person asked whether other states have solved their property-tax funding problem. Tobin pointed to Kentucky as a successful example.
“In Kentucky, the state government fully faced the problem and created a comprehensive plan to fix the system. Each state is different and each state’s solutions will be tailored to its particular culture, law, and educational needs. The problem here is that the state government, and especially the legislature, have spent too much time and energy avoiding the problem or coming up with incomplete solutions. And in recent years [since 2011], the state has actually gone backwards.”