August 18. 2018 9:10PM

Legislative push underway to lift school building aid moratorium

By TODD FEATHERS
New Hampshire Union Leader


CONCORD - School building aid hasn't been a prominent issue this election season, but several lawmakers say they will make it a priority in the next session.

Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, who chairs the House Education Committee, and Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, who chairs the House Division II Finance Committee, said they're happy to lead the effort.

"The building aid program, it's absolutely imperative that we ratchet it up and get it back going," Ladd said, adding, "I think now the Legislature is recognizing we have some significant issues out there in the field."

From 1955 to 2008, the state helped pay for major school projects, picking up between 30 and 60 percent of the cost, depending on the district's wealth. But as the recession was taking hold, lawmakers and policy experts realized building aid was growing at an unsustainable rate.

The program's budget had ballooned by 150 percent over the previous decade, Daniel Barrick, then-deputy director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, wrote in 2011, and critics said too much of that money was going to districts that didn't really need the assistance.

The outstanding debt on previously approved projects was nearly $540 million, according to a report from the center that same year.

The Legislature imposed a moratorium on new building aid funding in 2009, and it has renewed the moratorium every two years since.

In 2013, lawmakers capped the amount the Department of Education can request for building aid, including paying off debt on old projects, at $50 million. The remaining debt - referred to as the tail - is projected to be $33 million for the next fiscal year, leaving $17 million available for new projects - assuming the Legislature approves it for that purpose.

Thirty-nine states (including New Hampshire) help fund local school construction, according to a 2010 report from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

"I know that we'd like to try to, but it depends on what revenues come in and what other expenses we're up against, like fighting the opioid crisis," said Sen. Gary Daniels, R-Milford, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "It's certainly something to take into consideration when we're formulating the next budget. ... If we're going to put that money back, then something else may have to go in order to keep the budget balanced. The question is: What is that?"

There were small-scale steps in 2017 to ease the pain, but there doesn't yet appear to be a long-term solution with broad support.

Last year, an exception to the moratorium was made to give $2.25 million to Hins-dale, where the elementary school was in dire need. The Legislature also created a $19 million Public School Infrastructure Fund to help districts pay for security upgrades and to address immediate safety concerns. In April, it added another $10 million to that pot.

It's unclear where Gov. Chris Sununu, who is seeking reelection, stands on the issue. When asked whether he believes the moratorium should be lifted, and if so how it should be paid for, Sununu did not directly answer the questions.

"Earlier this year, we established the Public School Infrastructure Fund to assist school districts in making long overdue infrastructure upgrades," he said in a brief statement. "The goal is simple: make New Hampshire's schools safer for students, teachers, and faculty while enabling the opportunity to provide local taxpayers with some relief. As a result since taking office, we have returned nearly $30 million to local school districts for critical safety and infrastructure improvements. I am proud to be the first governor to deliver a real full-day kindergarten program for communities across our state, which will close the opportunity gap and provide students, regardless of their economic status, an extra step up as they enter the first grade."

tfeathers@unionleader.com