CONCORD — It’s unusual to see 50 people turn out for a school board meeting, but when the issue is possible closure of your town’s elementary school, emotions run high.

That was obvious when the school board for the nine-town Contoocook Valley School District (more widely known as ConVal) met on Dec. 18 to approve a warrant article for the district meeting that would downsize the Peterborough-based collaborative from 11 schools to five.

Small towns that cherish their local elementary school as a focal point of community life would see their children bused to a regional school. Despite overwhelming opposition to that idea from parents, the board voted 7-5 to let the broader electorate decide in March.

If voters approve, residents of Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple would see their eight elementary schools collapsed into two, serving grades K-4.

ConVal is certainly not alone in trying to come to grips with the reality of declining school populations in an era of rising costs and reduced state aid.

A debate that has occupied policymakers, educators and parents of schoolchildren for more than two decades may reach a tipping point in the next two years. More school districts are facing the possibility of school closings and pubic pressure is building on lawmakers to find a more permanent solution that doesn’t require frequent lawsuits pitting cities and towns against state government over the issue of educational funding.

Possible road map

A group of lawmakers spent the better part of the past year studying educational funding in New Hampshire and crafted a road map for the legislature to follow as it grapples with the perennial challenge in the upcoming session.

Led by Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, the eight-member committee (six Republicans, two Democrats) recently delivered its recommendations to Gov. Chris Sununu and legislative leaders.

The committee majority is calling on the legislature to increase the state’s basic per-pupil grant from $3,636 to $3,897. They also recommend that the additional per-pupil grant for low-income students go from $1,818 to $2,500.

In a further nod to the low-income school districts struggling to fund education without bankrupting local taxpayers, the plan also calls for a new grant program to provide an additional $2,500 per pupil for communities with low property values.

All of those moves would bring extra state dollars into local school budgets, but that would be offset by the end of so-called stabilization grants, designed to keep state money flowing to schools even as enrollment declines.

“Municipalities and school districts have come to believe they are entitled to receive money for non-existing students,” according to Umberger. “Education dollars should go to support current students.”

Two different plans

If the “Committee to Study Education Funding” plan is adopted, the state would give with one hand and take away with the other. The net result would be some increase in state aid to the neediest districts, but not nearly enough to avoid the kind of cuts that has parents up in arms in Peterborough.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that Umberger did not win re-election, and the Republicans that comprised the majority of her committee no longer comprise the majority of the state legislature.

Democratic committee member Mel Myler, the incoming chair of the House Education Committee, offered a minority report that suggests where the majority party might be headed on this issue.

“The committee’s majority recommendation continues the history of playing at the margins of the school funding issue by providing additional funding here and there to schools without addressing the core disparities,” according to Myler.

He wants a broader look at the problem with an eye toward a more equitable system.

“We continue to have rich school and poor schools based on the property wealth of their community,” he says. “The result is that some students have a greater educational advantage because of the wealth of the community in which they reside.”

No clear position

The Democratic leadership has not staked out a clear position on the issue, as there are at least six bills that relate to funding an adequate education and lawmakers at this appoint appear inclined to let the process play out.

“I would say the adequacy grant we are paying now, $3,636, is woefully inadequate and it hurts our local property taxpayers,” said Democratic House Speaker Steve Shurtleff.

The average amount spent per pupil statewide is $15,000, with wealthier communities spending between $20,000 to $25,000 per pupil. Some towns spend as little as $10,000. Manchester’s most recent cost per pupil was calculated at just over $11,000.

Amendment debate

Equalizing those numbers across the state, while maintaining the minimum state grant for even the wealthiest communities, would take more money than the state’s current tax structure provides, and that’s not likely to change.

That’s why people ranging from former Democratic governor John Lynch to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu believe the only long-term solution is a constitutional amendment that gets the courts out of the educational funding business.

That would enable Concord to send little or nothing to the wealthiest towns, while directing a larger share of the statewide property tax to the neediest.

“Allow the legislature to decide exactly where those state funds should go,” Sununu said in a recent interview in his office. “Gov. Lynch and I sat here just a week ago and discussed this very issue. I know he and I agree very much on allowing the legislature to have that power, and to make sure there is flexibility in the system to adjust when it needs to be adjusted.”

More Democrats might support that idea if they felt the legislature could be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to equalizing educational opportunity across the state.

“We’ve seen how well the legislature has done in the last 20 years,” said Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, one of the lead attorneys in the Claremont lawsuits that upended education finance as it had existed prior to the 1990s. “The legislature has failed to do its part, and there’s no reason to believe that absent some court supervision that the legislature would do better in the future.”

Sununu says something’s got to give, and it could happen this year. “I can’t tell you exactly where we’re going to end up or what’s going to be proposed,” he said, “but how education is funded in this state has been a contentious issue for the last 20 years and we want to put some resolve to it if we can.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com