August 18. 2018 9:23PM

Poor towns hardest hit by lack of school aid

By TODD FEATHERS
New Hampshire Union Leader


Rumney Fire Chief David Coursey said if action isn't taken, he will have to shut down Russell Elementary School, which has no fire sprinklers and inadequate alarm systems and exits. (COURTESY)

There is no elevator at Russell Elementary School in Rumney, nor any other method for a person with a physical disability to get to the middle school classrooms on the second floor.

When one of the school's 106 students was on crutches for a portion of last year, Principal Jonann Torsey had to switch the entire class to a different room.

"If we had a handicapped student or teacher we would have a really big problem on our hands, to be candid," Torsey said.

There are also no fire sprinklers at the school, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The alarm systems throughout most of the building are inadequate, some offices can't be used because they lack secondary fire exits, and several of the exits that do exist aren't in compliance with state rules.

If something doesn't change, Rumney Fire Chief David Coursey said, he will have no choice but to shut down the school.

The town has spent years studying the problems and devising a solution: A roughly $6 million rebuild of the oldest portion of the building, which was constructed in 1957.

But in this town of 1,644 in the foothills of the White Mountains - where the main occupations are in logging, agriculture and seasonal tourism - $6 million is more than the community can afford on its own. More than 19 percent of Rumney's residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the median household income of $47,422 is $21,000 less than the state median.

Without state aid, it will only be a few more years before the last bell rings at Rumney's only school.

"It's just more money than a small town like Rumney can handle with its tax base," Coursey said. "It is going to get to a point where I'm going to say, 'Look, we've been talking about this, you've been talking about fixing it, but I'm going to give you a deadline.' ... They just can't keep kicking the can down the road waiting for the state to come up with money."

It's been nearly a decade since the Legislature placed a moratorium on state aid for school construction and maintenance. Districts have built up a backlog of needed projects that could cost as much as $675 million, according to the Department of Education. The impact is beginning to take a disproportionate toll on lower-income communities like Rumney that can't afford to raise taxes.

"More affluent communities are building schools because they can afford it on the local end, but we have communities that are trying to pass a warrant article for schools and have failed," said Amy Clark, administrator of the state's School Safety and Facility Management Bureau. "A lot of schools, they know their community isn't going to support it or can't support it."

This year, districts applied for eligible projects that would total $56 million in state aid. The total price tag of the projects, which would all have to come from local tax increases if there is no aid, is more than $137 million.

At the Lakeway Elementary School in Littleton, which is one of the applicants, the ceilings leak, programs are held in spaces unsuited to the purpose, and there are days when classrooms are without heat, Superintendent Steven Nilhas said. The district is considering a range of solutions - from an $8 million patch-up of the most serious needs to a new school that could cost as much as $21 million.

The town, with a median household income of $37,727, would be eligible for 55 percent state aid on the projects if the moratorium weren't in place. As it is, taxpayers will have to pick up the full cost of the bond.

"Do I think we can get a bond passed? I don't know, but we're going to try," Nilhas said, adding, "It's a shame that the quality of a building students are in and, to some extent, the quality of the education they receive, depends on the wealth of their community."

About 60 percent of New Hampshire's 481 public schools were built more than 50 years ago, according to a survey conducted by the Department of Education in 2016.

At least 18 of them were constructed before 1900 and at least 16 schools that were built before 1948 have either never had a major renovation or haven't had one in more than 50 years.

Of the 306 schools that responded to the survey, 15 percent said students were being taught in portable classrooms, and 21 percent said they were using temporary spaces like gymnasiums or renovated bathrooms.

Some wealthier communities have been able to garner local support for big projects, despite the tax impact, but it hasn't been easy for them either.

After three failed votes, Newmarket finally approved a $39 million school construction bond last year. Several months later, Windham narrowly passed a $38 million bond after voters rejected a similar proposal in 2015.

Those struggles took place in districts where the median household income is nearly the same as, or far exceeds, the state median.

At the Oyster River Middle School in Durham, orchestra lessons are held in hallways outside math classrooms due to the lack of appropriate space, Superintendent James Morse said. The district - which is eligible for the minimum state aid amount of 30 percent because of its relative affluence - has secured modest tax increases to help pay for additions and improvements to its other schools. But now the need is for a new, $40 million middle school. It's a hard request to make, and one that few other tax bases could bear.

"Many parts of our state are incredibly poor, and to ask the local taxpayer to sustain a facility without any help from the state is a crushing blow to local taxpayers," Morse said. "State participation would also ensure that the kind of facilities going up are the kind that are going to last decades. If you are going to build things all on local dollars, you may end up building buildings that aren't as sustainable. The local taxpayer can't afford to build $80 million high schools."

tfeathers@unionleader.com