N.H. Lawmakers Come Close to Accord on Aid
The New Hampshire House and Senate last week came to enough of a consensus on how to resolve the state's education funding crisis that some observers were predicting schools would be able to continue operations when their new fiscal year begins July 1. Such an outcome has not seemed at all certain lately.
Both chambers passed their own plans for paying for education and put them in one piece of legislation for consideration by a conference committee. The versions have in common a statewide property tax and other, smaller taxes, including ones on cigarettes and real estate transfers. But they also have their share of differences. The Senate bill contains a capital-gains tax, while the House measure does not, for example.
The House plan would raise $808 million for education; the Senate plan, $846 million.
"I'm very pleased that [the legislature] has taken one step closer to closure so that we can realistically make plans for the opening of schools next September," said Paul W. Krohne, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association. "That's going to cause relief on the part of local administrators who have been seriously looking at what we need to do to close our schools."
Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, released a statement saying the
passage of the House and Senate legislation was "a milestone in our
efforts to resolve the school funding issue."
Pink Slips Galore
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in December 1997 that the state's reliance on local property taxes provided an unequal education for children across communities and thus was unconstitutional. The court told the legislature to correct the problem by the first of this month, a deadline that came and went while legislators still argued over a solution.
Making the situation more difficult was Gov. Shaheen's steadfast resistance to a state income tax, which some legislators felt was the best way to provide a secure funding source for education.
A number of events have added urgency to the matter. Without the assurance that they could pay them next year, schools sent pink slips to teachers in droves this month. As of March 31, it became illegal to collect local property taxes in the state. Two investment companies also put the state on a "bond watch," meaning that if the school finance problem were not solved soon, the credit rating for the state would slip.
Nick of Time?
A new deadline of April 30 also looms over the legislature. By then, schools need to sign contracts for academic summer school and special education programs to continue throughout the summer.
Some observers were optimistic that the House and the Senate would be able to resolve their differences. But others suggested it was still too early too tell.
Michael Colby, the communications director for the Senate, predicted that the versions were similar enough that conferees would likely reach agreement early this week.
He speculated that a law would be signed "just in the nick of time" for schools to sign contracts and get their programs up and running for the summer. "And teachers can rip up their pink slips," he added.
Some House members were less jubilant over last week's actions.
"I've seen bills with more differences between the House and Senate go quickly. I've seen bills that have simple things different not go at all," said House Majority Leader Gene G. Chandler, a Republican.
Rep. Paul J. Dwyer Sr., a Democrat on the House finance committee, said he was surprised that his chamber had approved a plan at all, noting that the struggle to find a way to finance education is "a very, very partisan battle." Pointing out that the House vote of 198-176 had been fairly close, Mr. Dwyer said the prospect for a satisfactory solution "doesn't look good."
Far From Over?
Regardless of the House and Senate conferees' ability to come out of their committee with legislation they agree on, the battle over how to subsidize schools in New Hampshire is far from over, observers say.
Andru Volinsky, one of the lawyers representing property-poor districts in the finance-equity case, Claremont School District v. Governor, said that the amount of money the state has agreed to pay for education does not meet the requirements of the state constitution for an adequate education. He noted that the $4,130 per-pupil level proposed by the House is less than what the lowest-spending district in the state shells out for education.
Mr. Volinsky said he also worries that the funding sources being proposed will not prove to be "lasting and reliable."
"We may be back to litigating this case again and again because we've chosen an incomplete solution," he said.
On the other hand, Mr. Volinsky said he was pleased that at least the Claremont case may force the state to increase its share of funding for education from $60 million--a mere 7 percent of the cost--to $800 million, which would cover 53 percent of the current $1.5 billion cost of public education.
Mr. Krohne of the school boards' association agreed that the gap between what is being proposed and what is needed may be cause for more litigation.
"There's a lot left in both versions that will be subject to litigation," he said. "But closure at this point is absolutely critical so that we don't have to disrupt the education of children in our state."
Vol. 18, Issue 33, Pages 21-22