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December 15. 2012 11:50PM

Lawmakers to propose school-aid constitutional amendment in 2013

Two state lawmakers, one a House Democrat, the other a Senate Republican, say they plan to jointly file a proposed constitutional amendment to allow changes in the way the state helps fund school districts.

The amendment is intended to let the state provide more help to poorer school districts in providing a constitutionally adequate education to students.

In recent years, proposals have been made to change the constitution to provide more flexibility than is allowed under the Claremont series of decisions that have been the underpinnings of state school funding for more than 20 years.

Every proposal to change the constitution has been defeated.

This time around, however, lawmakers, and ultimately the voters, would know how the reforms would be implemented.

State Sen. Nancy Styles, R-Hampton, and Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton, say they will also ask for the creation of a special commission that would draft legislation to implement the constitutional changes.

"It would accomplish targeting, allowing the state to target money first to communities that are most in need," Styles said.

Drafting legislation to go along with the constitutional amendment would allow lawmakers and, ultimately, the electorate, to have an idea of how school funding would change.

Richardson says adding legislative practicality to the generalities inherent in a constitutional amendment will lead to better understanding of what would happen if the amendment is adopted.

"I think something that is moderate and provides some assistance without making radical changes in the way school districts are funded is what is needed," Richardson said. "How much discretion is the Legislature going to have to determine funding is a separate issue from whether the Legislature can target money."

Amendments to the state constitution require a three-fifths majority in each branch of the Legislature to make it to the ballot. Voters must approve an amendment by a two-thirds majority for it to become part of the 228-year-old New Hampshire Constitution.

Styles said a bipartisan effort to amend the constitution, along with the special commission's recommendations on implementing the changes, means reform of post-Claremont education funding is more likely.

The Claremont decisions required an equal base funding amount across school districts, but still required the Legislature to provide an adequate education to all students. Some critics say poorer districts struggle to provide that adequate education because their smaller property valuations don't allow for as much funding to be provided on top of the state-mandated base amount.

"We're trying to work together to see if we can come up with some language that would meet the needs of students," Styles said. "We would put that to the people and say, 'Do you want us to be able to target money for education, or will we be in a holding pattern."

Currently, the state provides a base amount, $3,450, for every student, with additional funds for students from families that do not speak English or whose family income qualifies them under federal regulations for the reduced-price and free lunch program. ?Styles and Richardson have submitted the outline of proposed legislation to the legislative services bureau for drafting. Styles said she expects that the language of the amendment could change as it moves back and forth from the Senate to the House.

The lawmakers plan to appeal to Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan to back the ultimate proposal.

"I think something that is moderate and provides some assistance without making radical changes in the way school districts are funded is what is needed," Richardson said.

Marc Goldberg, a spokesman for Hassan, said she is "always open to discussing constructive ideas for improving education with legislators, but the governor-elect believes the state has a responsibility for education, and she will not support any amendment that lets the Legislature walk away from that."

Styles said the moderate change requires a bipartisan spirit and an understanding that there is a middle ground on the issue.

"We need to have both Democrats and Republicans work together to have language that will satisfy both of us," she said. "Some want the courts to have no involvement, some want the courts involved. I think we need to make sure all kids have opportunity to have an adequate education."


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Bill Smith may be reached at wsmith@unionleader.com.


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