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Not just a tax bill, a way to give more

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 19. 2012 11:30PM

MANCHESTER - Local taxpayers wanting to give city schools more funding soon may be able to put their money where their mouths are.

On Monday, aldermen will vote by telephone on whether to include information with the city tax bills asking taxpayers whether they want to give a donation to the city schools when they pay their property taxes.

'I got the idea from people saying, 'I'm willing to pay,'' said Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, who suggested the idea when aldermen met last week. 'Talk is cheap. Let's put our money where our mouth is.'

Long hopes the fund could raise millions over time - and he planned to write a check.

'I can afford $300; my wife doesn't think so,' Long said.

On Friday, officials from the state Department of Revenue Administration gave the city the legal green light to start the program, with conditions. The city can't put a box on tax bills for people to write in an extra amount.

But, Mayor Ted Gatsas said, 'we can put a note in the tax bill,' giving people the opportunity to send in more than the amount due on their bills. A separate check would be needed for the extra amount.

'I have no problem if someone wants to send money that goes directly to the school district,' Gatsas said. 'It's fine with me.'

Gatsas is still working out the details, including whether donations can be earmarked for a specific use, such as playground equipment or band uniforms. Tax bills are being printed this week.

'Tax bills are going to be mailed June 1 and due July 3,' said Brenda Adams, Manchester's deputy tax collector.

Some 32,308 tax bills will be mailed, though some people owning multiple properties will receive more than one bill.

Adams isn't sure how many people will give more. 'Hopefully, it's more like 80 percent,' she said. 'I guess we'll have to wait and see.'

Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said it sounded like a novel idea.

'I have not heard it structured that way that it would be part of the tax bill,' he said.

Joyce said virtually every school district has a parents group that helps raise money to pay for field trips or playground equipment. 'They're run as separate funds outside the school jurisdiction,' he said.

Retired school teacher Jane Aitken, who formed the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition and serves as a director of the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers, said she might like the idea.

'If it's set up so it's accountable and goes directly to the classrooms, I think that's fine,' said the Bedford resident. But not if it is a way to 'blindly give to the tax machine' without limitations, Aitken said.

James O'Connell, president of the Hillside Parent-Teacher Organization, said many parents and businesses already supplement taxpayer funds.

'The parents of Manchester kids are already putting money into the schools, both hard cash donations and we have a lot of benefits in-kind,' he said.

He knows of at least three law firms that have donated paper to city schools, and Best Buy gave digital cameras to Hillside. O'Connell said he expects to write a check to the school fund.

'There are private citizens like myself and others who are very, very concerned about the drastic financial situation the school district finds itself in,' he said.

But, O'Connell said, 'I don't really expect a couple of million dollars will come in that way,' he said.

O'Connell plans to lead a new organization that will unite parents across the city to advocate for more resources for city schools.

Londonderry School Superintendent Nate Greenberg said his schools 'get a good deal of outside support' already, including $92,000 from fundraising activities for the high school band last year.

Greenberg said one concern could arise if a voluntary fund raised a lot of money and caused the 'municipality to underfund the schools and in effect impose a user fee on people.'

Despite the uncertain economic times, donations at the Granite United Way were 'flat' in fall 2011 compared with the previous year, said Shannon Sullivan, its director of marketing and communications.

'I think we've seen over the last few years with the economy and everyone going through tough times, people who can give more do so when times are tough.'

Long said money could be used to boost technology, whether it be installing Wi-Fi in the schools or replacing computer monitors now held together with duct tape.

Joyce said other communities might take notice and run with the idea in some way. 'Sometimes, lessons learned are reworked in a whole different way,' he said.

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