Wednesday, February 13, 2008

School funding vote may come next week

The following piece appeared in the Union Leader. Be sure to visit the Union Leader website to view the comments by Union Leader readers. Our schools have a spending problem and not a funding problem. More funding will only encourage more spending which will lead to future tax increases. Lawsuits due to adequate funding have done nothing to improve the quality of education in public schools.

School funding vote may come next week
State House Bureau Chief
Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

CONCORD – The New Hampshire Senate could vote on a school funding constitutional amendment as soon as next week, after a bipartisan proposal passed committee review on a 3-2 vote.

Gov. John Lynch, members of both parties and several spokesmen for business told the Senate Judiciary Committee that an amendment sponsored by Senate leaders is the right move for education funding.

Critics said the state should forget constitutional amendments, end a decade of delay and fund education fairly.

The amendment will give the Legislature more flexibility to target aid than it has now. The Supreme Court's rulings in lawsuits by Claremont and Londonderry have said the state is responsible for every dollar it costs to provide an adequate education for each public school student.

Lynch argues that mandated level funding is the wrong approach. He wants to be able to target aid to poorer school districts.

"An education plan that obligates us to send the same amount to every child before we help communities with greater needs does not reduce the inequity that exists between schools. Rather, it widens the disparities and maintains the status quo," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Foster, D-Nashua, prime sponsor of CACR 34, said the bill simply provides "the flexibility to distribute state education aid to the communities that need it the most." Senate Minority Leader Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, is co-sponsor.

The amendment states that lawmakers have to make a reasonable effort to define an adequate education, and find a reasonable funding method to "alleviate local disparities" among school districts.

The state School Administrators Association and the state School Board Association, NEA-NH, the state's largest teacher's union, as well as several House members, opposed the bill. They argue it is unnecessary, since the state can already target aid, once it covers the basic cost of education for each child.

Others warned that by using the word "reasonable" twice, it will allow the state to shirk its current responsibilities, and leave the court little power to intervene.

Attorney William Chapman, who represented Londonderry in a school funding suit, said the changes will push up property taxes.

"Every dollar the state does not raise to fund adequate education falls on the local property taxpayer. Is that what your constituents really want?" Chapman asked.

Londonderry School Superintendent Nathan Greenberg criticized the amendment, saying it leaves too many questions unanswered. There is no telling how the bill will affect school district aid, he said. Calling it "an open-ended scenario, he complained, "You're asking us to vote on something we know nothing about."

The amendment comes forward at the same time a joint House-Senate committee is finishing work on a new school funding formula that will spend about $900 million. The plan sends enhanced funding to schools with higher populations of low-income, special education and English language learners.

Portsmouth Mayor Tom Ferrini said the amendment will bring stability to school budgets, and "stop cities and towns from being fearful of a yearly game of Russian roulette with risk for all and certainty for none."

A total of four Republican senators are co-sponsors on the amendment. Foster said he does not think all Senate Democrats will vote for the bill, but support from GOP sponsors and others will make up for the defections.

The amendment needs 60 percent approval in both the Senate and House to advance to voters in November. That would mean 15 senators and 239 of the current members of the House. Voters have to approve any amendment to the constitution by a two-thirds majority.

Lynch and other witnesses who favor the amendment said it's time voters had a say in education funding matters.

"Let's give the people of New Hampshire a say," Lynch said.

Rep. David Scannell, D-Manchester, echoed Lynch, saying, "Move this question to the people and give them an opportunity to give some finality to this."

Not all agreed.

"Suddenly we have this interest in a referendum €¦ We are not a referendum state," Rep. Christine Hamm, D-Hopkinton, said. Lawmakers are obligated to give the amendment their best consideration before sending it to voters, she said.

The Senate passed a school funding amendment last year by a 15-9 vote. The measure saw several wording changes before it went to the full House, where it was defeated by a two-to-one margin. Only 108 Democrats voted for the measure. Republicans were to join with them, but the deal fell apart on the first vote and the two sides were unable to reach a compromise.

Besides defeating the bill, the House took parliamentary steps that will make it more difficult for the House to take up the measure again this year.

Yesterday, Sens. Robert Letourneau, R-Derry, and Robert Clegg, R-Hudson, voted against the Foster-Gatsas amendment. Foster, Sen. David Gottesman, D-Nashua, and Sen. Deborah Reynolds, D-Plymouth, voted for it.

The committee voted 4-1 to reject CACR32, an amendment by Sen. Joseph Kenney, R-Wakefield. It would return all control over education to local communities, and says the state "may provide supplemental funding." Clegg's was the only voice supporting the bill.


"[Art.] 83-a [Funding Public Education.] In fulfillment of the state's duties set forth in the preceding article, the general court shall have the authority and responsibility to reasonably define the content of an adequate public education and to distribute state funds for public education in the manner that it reasonably determines to alleviate local disparities."

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