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February 26. 2012 12:27AM

Beth LaMontagne Hall's City Hall: Assessor says argument favoring school funding hike has flaws


 

The opinion that the city underfunds the Manchester schools has been common among those invested in the district. School board members, parents and education advocates have all pointed to data that show spending on schools could be better, especially when compared with the rest of the state's districts.

But with arguably the starkest budget outlook in recent history before the Board of School Committee, members have begun an unofficial media campaign to inform the public of just how much it costs to run Manchester schools and what they see as an unfair distribution of funds — and cuts — from the city in the past few years.

Committee Vice Chairman Dave Gelinas noted in a recent Union Leader opinion column that Manchester is third from the bottom when it comes to spending per student. Being a larger district, the overhead costs per student are going to be lower than those in smaller towns. But still, there is a sizable difference between Manchester, which spends $9,753 per pupil, and even the closest district in size, Nashua, which spends $11,021 per student, according to state data and education.com. In Rochester, a city not known for lavishing money upon its schools, the cost per student is $2,000 higher than the cost in Manchester.

There is also the property tax data, which school advocates argue show that over the years, the city has increased funding for city programs at a higher rate than for school programs.

Freshman committee member Erika Connors drew further attention to this argument when she sent an email to the aldermen, the school board and the Union Leader last week citing Manchester's school and city tax rates for the past four years. In 2008, the local education portion of the city's property taxes was $5.29 per $1,000 of assessed value, while the city portion was $7.84. In 2011, the school rate was $5.41 and the city rate was $9.28.

According to Connors, the school tax rate increased 2 percent while the city rate went up 18 percent.

Gelinas and Connors and other school officials say this data show it is not a ridiculous request to ask for more money for education, especially when it's expected to cost $10 million more next year to run the district without adding a single program or teaching post.

But crunching the tax numbers is “vastly more complicated” than comparing one number to another, said Board of Assessor head Robert Gagne. The school tax rate factors in other revenue besides taxes, such as state grants. The city rate includes money besides property taxes, as well, such as car registrations and permitting fees. A loss in revenue means more property tax money must be raised to make up for the loss, and during the recent recession, city revenues were down. Gagne points to 2008 and 2009 as an example, when revenues dropped $5.3 million and the city tax rate went up 21 cents.

It's more important to look at the amount of spending opposed to the tax rate itself, said Gagne.

“When you make those comparisons, you are getting into very dangerous waters,” he said.

The school budget also uses millions of dollars in federal funds above the $150 million it received from taxpayers this year, said Gatsas. Looking at just the tax rates does not show the whole picture, he said.

“I find it interesting that someone who just got elected less than 120 days ago wants to tell the people of Manchester she wants to raise their taxes,” said Mayor Ted Gatsas.

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THE NUMBER OF unions that have officially made concession deals last week rose to six — seven if you include the non-unionized employees who got together and bargained as a team. This comprises two police unions, two fire department unions, and the unions that represent library and airport workers. Still in talks with Gatsas are the unions that represent police support staff and the welfare, health, highway departments and facilities employees. The union that represents Water Works has yet to meet with the mayor.

Earlier this month, Water Works union President Mike Roche offered to meet with Gatsas to discuss negotiating these contracts together. Gatsas' office told Roche it would be happy to meet with him, but just to discuss the Water Works contract.

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THE ALDERMEN KILLED the plans to sell the naming rights to the new municipal complex last week, but that doesn't mean there won't be more advertising on city property.

The aldermen recently gave the tax collector the go-ahead to find companies interested in advertising on car registration notices sent to auto owners each year. The ads are the product of the city's “Bright Idea” program, which awards city employees cash prizes for coming up with ideas that save the city money.

No company has been selected yet, but the city expects auto dealerships and repair shops might be interested.

The Special Committee on Solid Waste Activities has also given initial approval to putting advertising on the city's new recycling toters. Although the ads are aimed at defraying the cost of the bins, Alderman Ed Osborne is dead set against it. No one wants to look at an ad on a recycling bin, he said, and seeing a row of ads up and down the street is even worse.

“All you're doing is blighting your own backyard and streets,” said Osborne.

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THE FIVE MEMBERS of the new Committee on Sustainable Benefits were announced last week. The group is charged with reviewing the city's retirement system and whether employees should pay more into the fund. The committee comprises Mike Lopez, former alderman-at-large and chairman of the board; Craig Garner, actuary for Eldridge Investment Advisors; Mike Whitney, former president of Bank of America New Hampshire; Sabrina Granville, human resources administrator at Elliot Hospital; and Jennie Angell, director of Manchester Information Systems.

Read Beth Hall LaMontagne's coverage of Manchester City Hall in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email her bhall@unionleader.com.


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