State Sen. Jim Rausch wants to set the record straight.
Rausch, state senator for District 19 and a Republican from Derry, spoke at the Feb. 4 Town Council meeting to discuss education funding and explain the funding formula he wrote.
Rausch spoke to misconceptions in the media as to the amount of money Derry receives from the state Department of Education (DOE). “It is important to understand why we receive the money we do,” Rausch told the Council and the audience.
In particular, Rausch said, there is a misconception that the state is “cutting” adequate education money from the local districts. Rather, he said, the funding is adjusted to reflect the number of students. It is based on the ADM (Average Daily Membership) of a district, from raw data supplied by the district to the DOE.
The Derry Cooperative School District had 6,866 students in 2002-03. In 2012-13 it had 5,469, a drop of 1,396 children.
Rausch, who also represents Hampstead and Windham, put it this way: “Hampstead has an entire school population of 1,315. So we have lost the equivalent of the entire Hampstead school population.”
School enrollment has dropped by 20 percent over those years, he said.
But the state education grants have gone up, Rausch added. “In 2002-3 it was $29,131,342,” he said. “In 2013 it was $33,164,473.” This is a combination of SWEPT (Statewide Education Property Tax) and the Adequate Education Grant.
Rausch wrote the formula in 2008-09 because he “wanted to make sure every district gets paid by the amount of children it has.”
But the amount of the adequate education grant has gone up over those years, he added. The average grant per student in 2008-09 was $4,484.41; in 2012-13, $4,694.90; and projected for 2013-14, $4,748.74.
According to RSA 198:41, Derry also receives an $8 million “stabilization grant” that was built into the process to help districts that are losing students.
It was “troubling” to Rausch to hear, in the media and the recent school public hearing, that the district was “losing” $476,000. “The State of New Hampshire did not ‘cut’ Derry,” he said. “We are receiving less because they are paying us by the number of students.”
And it’s important for town officials and the public to know why funds are decreasing, he said, explaining, “The bottom line is, you lose those children, you lose those dollars.”
Rausch reviewed the form of government for the Derry School District, which is the Official Ballot Law, also known as SB2 or Senate Bill 2. “In SB2 towns, if you like the proposed budget, you have two chances to vote on it: in the February deliberative session and the March ballot voting. If you don’t like it you have only one opportunity to change it, and that’s in the deliberative session,” he said. “In March you will have no opportunity to reduce it.”
While the School Board has brought in a budget that is $1 million lower than last year’s and $333,000 lower than the default budget, if approved it will still bring a 9 cent increase on the tax rate, Rausch said. “If this were a business, that would not be a good balance sheet,” he said.
Rausch said the district is predicted to lose another 1,000 students over the next 10 years.
That is a statewide trend, he added. “We are losing children,” he said. “We need a healthy, vibrant younger population.”
Councilor Tom Cardon observed, “When they brought in SB2, it was my understanding that the default budget should be level-funded, not higher than the proposed budget.”
Rausch agreed. “The default budget is supposed to be, if all else fails, what sustains the town or school,” he said. “It is not supposed to be more than the proposed budget.”
“It is a flawed system,” Cardon said.
Chairman Michael Fairbanks asked about the risk of losing the stabilization grant.
Rausch said that was up to the next legislative body but he would fight for it. “My goal is stabilization, fairness, even though the process isn’t perfect,” he said. “We have communities that are still under-funded.”
Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores observed, “I’m trying to wrap my brain around losing so many kids when people move here for the schools.”
Councilor Neil Wetherbee had several points. He wondered about the Derry School District’s policy of paying the difference between the education grant and the Pinkerton Academy tuition rate (the high school of record for the town) in order for Derry students to attend Next Charter School.
“I thought charter schools were supposed to be self-funding,” Wetherbee said.
Rausch said that is the case in other districts. The adequate education grant goes to the charter school instead of the local school district, and the charter school’s board and parents fund-raise for the difference. “No school board in the state,” he said, “gives to charter schools out of taxpayer dollars.”
Rausch said Next is already well-funded by its state and federal education grants, $150,000 to $200,000 for the first three years. Another charter school, the Granite State Arts Academy, has also been approved by the state and will open this fall in Derry. “It will have an impact,” Rausch said.
Councilor Al Dimmock said he talks to people who tell him, “I home school. Why should I pay the school tax?” Others tell him they have children at St. Thomas Aquinas or other private schools.
“That’s a whole other issue,” Rausch said. “A person could say, ‘Why does a senior citizen pay taxes? They don’t have children in the schools.’” He reminded the group that home schoolers have access to programs and services from the local public schools. As for private school, he said, “It is what it is. It’s your choice.”
Wetherbee wondered if it was time to change the form of government. “What really struck me last year,” Wetherbee said, “is that we’ve outgrown SB2.” He reminded the Council and audience that 83 people had added $800,000 back into the school budget, in a town of more than 30,000. “What are the alternatives?” Wetherbee asked.
Rausch said a city form of government, where the city can control the school budget, may be the next step.
“But the better way,” Rausch said, “is for the citizens to pay attention.”