BERLIN — “We’re trying to build a movement,” Attorney Andru Volinsky told the crowd of about 150 that attended last Thursday’s forum on reforming the state’s school funding system.
Volinsky and Attorney John Tobin are participating in similar forums across the state to create political pressure to make the legislature act to address what the two lawyers call a crisis in education funding. The two were part of the legal team that took the state to court in the 1990’s to establish its responsibility to provide an adequate education for all youth
The Berlin school board and city council hosted the forum at the Berlin Middle School autidorium and invited municipal and school officials from across the North Country. Many local school officials were wearing tee shirts with the logo “SOS – Save Our Schools” - Solve Education Funding Now.
Superintendent of Schools Corinne Cascadden said Berlin is at a critical juncture and cannot continue to absorb the continued loss of state educational stabilization funding. With early figures showing student enrollment down 57 pupils this fall, Cascadden said that will cost the city $207,000 in state education funding on top of the $220,000 cut in stabilization. Mayor Paul Grenier said those two items equal $1 on the tax rate.
Delivering a primer on education funding, Volinsky said the local property tax payer picks up 72 percent of the cost of education. The state provides communities with state education adequacy funding at the rate of $3,636 per pupil. He said the average cost per pupil is more than $15,000.
The rest is largely funded through the local and state education tax, which are part of a community’s overall tax rate.
Volinsky explained a community’s overall property valuation determines how hard or easy it is to raise taxes. With a 2017 equalized valuation of $350.6 million and a student population of 1,114, Berlin has $314,698 of property value per student – the lowest in the state. The state average is just over $1 million per student.
Near the top of the scale, Freedom’s equalized valuation comes out to $4.9 million per student. To raise the same amount of money, Berlin’s school tax rate would have to be 15 times higher than Freedom’s school tax. In practice, Freedom raises $32,716 per student with an equalized school tax rate of $6.61 while Berlin raises $5,923 per student with a school tax of $18.82.
While municipalities like Portsmouth and Moultonborough also enjoy high equalized valuation per pupil, Volinsky and Tobin pointed out there are lots of communities, including Claremont and Franklin, that are in the same boat as Berlin.
The legislature established Education Stabilization Grants to help communities that faced an increased tax burden increase because of declining enrollments or other factors. But in 2015, the legislature voted to phase out those grants over 25 years. For communities like Berlin, which received $5.5 million in stabilization funds, the impact has been dramatic. The city is losing $220,000 annually and to date the school system has absorbed $660,000 in cuts by not replacing staff and cutting capital projects. Cascadden said next year the school board is looking at closing a school building.
Tobin is again putting together a legal team to go back to court to fight for education funding. Volinsky, who serves as an executive councilor, said he promised not to sue the state if elected. But the two men noted that going to court is a time consuming process. Tobin said even if they prevail in court, there still has to be the political will to implement the court’s finding.
As a first step, Tobin suggested pushing the legislature to stop the cuts in education stabilization grants as a temporary measure while a comprehensive solution to the school funding issue is worked out.
“There is a coalition to be made,” he said.
Sample questions were handed out and the two urged residents to talk to candidates for state office and urge them to support adequate school funding.
Ted Bosen of Berlin asked about legislature already filed to address the decrease in stabilization funding. Volinsky said it was referred to study committee. Rep. Edith Tucker of Randolph suggested communities in the southern tier may be receptive to restoring stabilization aid in exchange for reinstating school building aid.