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Mayors' views on school funding as distant as their cities

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 02. 2012 8:20PM

Local officials from Berlin to Manchester and Bedford offer widely different views on a school-funding constitutional amendment the Legislature will address this week.

Berlin's mayor doesn't trust the state to keep state funding coming to his city under an amendment. Manchester's mayor believes the amendment would be helpful to his city, the state's largest, and others agree with him.

Berlin now receives $10.7 million in state aid, but Mayor Paul Grenier is skeptical.

'This creates more questions than it answers,' Grenier said, vowing to 'work my hardest' to defeat the proposal in the Legislature this week and, if it gets that far, with the voters in November.

'It doesn't require the Legislature to fund a fair amount for education,' he said.

Grenier said lawmakers in the 1980s 'could have avoided this whole fight' by fully funding the targeted-aid formula known at the times as the Augenblick Formula.

Lawmakers in 1994 passed legislation increasing state aid from $47 million to $102 million and targeting it through Augenblick. But Gov. Steve Merrill vetoed it and what became known as the Claremont case went to trial in 1996.

Current state aid totals $578 million, while another approximately $340 million is raised locally through the statewide property tax. Most of the latter stays in the community in which it's raised.

'They didn't fully fund it back then,' Grenier said of the 1994 legislation. 'So what assurances do I have that they're going to reasonably fund education aid so that it helps school districts that have poor demographics?

'I would much rather live with the hybrid system that we have now,' which, he said, 'has treated Berlin fairly.'

Manchester-area support

But in Manchester, Mayor Ted Gatsas likes the current proposal and says it is similar to one he co-sponsored as a Republican state senator several years ago.

Manchester receives $56.7 million in so-called 'adequate education' aid, but the mayor said the city's grant has bumped up against a cap put in place by lawmakers.

Without the cap, the grant would be getting closer to $72 million, Gatsas said, and with the amendment, he is confident that the city will get more, not less, funding.

'I believe that this plan finally gets the court out of the discussion and lets the state target aid,' Gatsas said. 'Everyone agrees that Bedford and Newington and Amherst should not be getting funding, and it leaves the funding mechanism in the state Legislature's hands, where it belongs.'

Democratic state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro of Manchester agreed.

'I'm confident that this would be a real plus for the city,' said the former Manchester school board member. 'It could get more, and deservedly so.

'I'm a strong, strong supporter of public education, and I believe public education is the state's responsibility. This amendment maintains that responsibility and allows for targeting,' D'Allesandro said. 'But above all, it gives the public an opportunity to express an opinion, and isn't it about time?'

John Avard, who represents Ward 10 on the Manchester school board, said, 'As long as we have responsible lawmakers who use this power wisely, education in this state will become more balanced from community to community.'

Ward 4 Manchester School Board member Roy Shoults added, 'I can well imagine that there will be some who see all kinds of imagined threats and dangers in this, but no perfect piece of legislation will ever be produced, and there are more potential threats and dangers in inaction on this matter than there are in action.'

Bedford receives $3.4 million this year, while Amherst gets $4.1 million. They might lose some or all of their funding in a post-amendment world.

Still, Rep. Ken Hawkins, R-Bedford, supports the amendment because 'I really think the Franklins, Claremonts, Berlins, etc. - we should be able to target some aid to them.'

He said it's uncertain how Bedford would fare 'because we don't know what the new formula would be.'

Democratic opposition

House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli said neither she nor her leadership team will tell the 104-member Democratic caucus how to vote, 'but I do expect that most of the caucus will not support this.'

There are currently 291 Republicans in the House.

Norelli said the amendment gives lawmakers unbridled power to determine not only how money is distributed but also how much.

'That seems to me to put at risk any state dollars that are going to local communities,' she said.

She said the Legislature has already cut building aid, catastrophic aid and 'totally eliminated the state participation in retirement costs for teachers, police and firefighters.

'When you put that together with the 'full power and authority' language, it indicates that the state, when it is given the leeway to do so, will renege on its responsibilities,' she said.

Rep. Gary Richardson, a Concord Democrat whose city now receives $13 million in aid from the state, said he supports targeting and has even submitted a proposed amendment that simply gives the Legislature 'authority to distribute the funds for education in the manner that it determines will best promote an equal opportunity for an adequate education for every child in the public schools.'

He said giving lawmakers 'full power and authority' will leave education funding virtually immune from court review on the issue.

'You're in effect saying to the court, 'This is up to the Legislature, and you guys stay out of it,'' he said.

For that reason, he said, he will oppose the proposed amendment.

John DiStaso is the senior political reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader .

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