Cora Huter, a senior at Berlin High School, hopes to have a career in nursing, but she could be at a disadvantage when she applies to colleges.
Her high school does not have a chemistry teacher this year, and Huter and other students are studying chemistry online through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, which provides courses to many students in the state via the internet.
The new superintendent of Berlin schools, Julie King, said while the online course is fine, the students will not have laboratory experience in chemistry.
King replaced longtime superintendent Corinne Cascadden who stepped down this year.
Huter’s mother, Amy, was the principal of the Brown Elementary School at one time. The school board decided this year to close it (the last elementary school in Berlin) and move the students into the high/middle school facility built in 1919.
Berlin, like many North Country schools, has experienced declining school enrollment, but it also lost $1 million in state education aid over the past three years after lawmakers decided to reduce stabilization grants by 4 percent a year.
Lawmakers touted the statewide reduction in student enrollment as one of the reasons to decrease state aid, but many property-poor communities like Berlin depend on the money for their schools and now face an additional reduction in state aid unless a budget agreement is reached that returns stabilization grants to their original level, which is what lawmakers passed in the $13.3 million two-year state operating budget that Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed.
The stark contrast between communities in crisis due to school funding and those with little difficulty raising the money to provide greater opportunities for their students was apparent at a public hearing last week before House and Senate budget writers, seeking to expose the budget veto’s effects on schools.
At the heart of the discussion was the reduction in stabilization aid.
School districts were told in 2011, when the education funding formula was last changed, they would be held harmless, meaning they would receive at least as much state aid as they did the year before the formula changed.
The new formula did away with fiscal disparity aid, which provided additional money to property-poor school districts.
It no longer required property-wealthy districts to send their excess statewide property tax collections to the state to help poorer schools.
The change in formula would have resulted in the state distributing $158 million less in state aid to communities, meaning some of the poorest school districts would have suffered the greatest loss in state money, so the stabilization grants were created to soften the blow.
At the time, the architects of the new formula, Republican Sens. Jim Rausch of Derry and Nancy Stiles of Hampton, said the grants would be sent to the school districts in perpetuity.
But in 2015, lawmakers decided to scale back the stabilization grants by 4 percent a year and remove a cap on how much growing school districts could receive in adequacy grants.
The changes helped districts like Dover, which successfully sued the state over the cap, and Bedford and Windham, whose enrollments were growing, but they hurt the majority of districts that suffered from declining student enrollment.
The changes exacerbated a growing problem for ommunities like Berlin, Claremont, Pittsfield, Newport and Franklin. The state already had shifted teacher retirement costs to local districts during the Great Recession and stopped municipal revenue sharing.
The changes exploded the property tax burden in communities that could least afford it and school budgets — the largest local expense — became battlegrounds, dividing communities.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that every student has a constitutional right to an “adequate education” and the state has an obligation to pay for it and later said the funding source had to be “proportional and reasonable,” i.e., not widely varying property tax rates.
Unlike Vermont, the Supreme Court never said education had to be equal across the state, only that it had to be adequate. Lawmakers and school districts have disagreed since the ruling what constitutes an adequate education and how much the state should pay for it.
The question is not partisan because both Democrats and Republicans have failed to abide by the court’s ruling and spent more time trying to pass constitutional amendments to remove court jurisdiction over education than solving the problem that currently is as bad as it was when the Claremont education lawsuit was filed, if not worse.
The disparity between property-wealthy school districts and the opportunities they provide their children and property-poor districts is immense.
Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier told of looking his elementary-school-aged grandson in the eyes as he took him to the high school facility built before Grenier’s father was born and wondered if that would be his legacy.
“The time will come when property-poor communities like Berlin will be totally unattractive (for business) investment,” he said. “Is this the legacy we want to leave in New Hampshire, that we take care of kids from rich communities, but if you come from property-poor towns, we throw you in the back of the bus?”
Cora Huter believes her educational opportunities are less than a high school senior in a more property-wealthy community and wonders what that may mean for her chosen career.
The best and brightest will survive and prosper, no matter where they come from, but under the current system, the average student’s opportunity is more dependent on the ZIP code where he or she lives than ability.
This is not an issue that will be settled in budget negotiations between Democratic leaders and Sununu, though the poorer communities certainly favor the education funding plan and increases in the vetoed budget rather than what the governor proposed the day of the hearing.
Fixing the education funding system will take years not months and may never happen.
One person who testified last week, John Morison, chairman and CEO of Hitchiner Manufacturing in Milford, urged lawmakers to look at overhauling the state’s tax system.
“Listening to the people here today, we have a revenue problem, a revenue distribution problem,” Morison said. “I strongly recommend you look for other forms of revenue to help solve these problems.”
Anyone attending last week’s hearing had to at least acknowledge there is a serious problem with state’s education funding system.
There are kids who will not have even adequate opportunities to excel academically because their communities lack the resources and they will not be able to compete for admission to better colleges and universities.
Politicians tout the high quality of the state’s schools based on national test scores, but that sidesteps the problem.
If the state’s students are its future, the funding system needs to be overhauled now before the disparity grows larger and no one wants to open a business in Berlin, Claremont or Newport or any other chronically property-poor community.
The state’s future truly depends on its students — all of them.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com