Calls for education funding reform in New Hampshire get louder every year. It’s not hard to understand why.
Since I moved to the lovely town of Sandown nine years ago, my school taxes have gone up 28 percent. During that period, enrollment in my school district has gone down 23 percent. Although we have 1,059 fewer students, our school district budget continues to increase.
This is a statewide predicament, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. My property tax rate of $29.16 per thousand is approaching unsustainability. Please don’t blame my frugal town — 79 percent of our taxes go to education.
Some argue that a state education tax will relieve the property tax burden felt most heavily by those on fixed incomes. I disagree. Unsupportable property taxes are the fault of ineffectual elected school district officials. No amount of additional money is going to change the fundamental dynamic that has allowed budgets to rise as dramatically as enrollment has plummeted.
One simple metric puts the situation in clear perspective. Take your school district total budget and divide it by enrollment. In my district, that number is a staggering $19,600 per student, per year.
Clearly the crisis in education funding is not resources — it is management. Administrators have not had a sufficient check on their budgets or their curriculum decisions because elected officials have utterly failed to guard their authority and execute their responsibilities.
Over the decades, elected school officials have come to think it is not their place to interfere with the decisions of educational professionals. Thus, they have delegated their lawful authority to their School Administrative Units (SAU,) headed by a superintendent. This means that elected officials are allowing bureaucrats, with their own institutional interests, to make unchallenged curriculum decisions, and draft and control budgets. In many districts, so complete has been this delegation of responsibility that I would wager that a majority of elected officials do not know what is in most budget lines.
By law, the school budget committee is charged with creating the budget. By convenience and convention, the SAU business administrator creates the budget. This may sound sensible until you realize that this arrangement deprives the budget committee of in-depth knowledge. This has the profound result of stripping budget committee members of their ability to challenge the budget. It begins with convenience and ends with complete and enforced ignorance.
So tightly do many SAUs control information, that elected bodies no longer know what information they should be given and, if given it, don’t know what to do with it. Not every school district suffers from a lack of financial transparency. Bedford, for example, is exemplary in what they provide to their elected officials and the public. But enough elected bodies are so sheltered from information that where they should be exercising oversight and checks and balances on an overweening administration, they are instead subject to it.
Year after year, my SAU administration withholds the bottom line budget number until shortly before the budget must be moved to public hearing. By design and with the knowing acquiescence of elected officials, the budget process inevitably devolves into a last-minute negotiation over the bottom line number. Taxpayers always lose because the system that imposes ignorance on the budget committee was rigged from the start.
It is not just budgeting where your elected representatives have refused to guard their authority and then abandoned their responsibilities. Any school board member inquiry into operational issues is decried as “micromanaging” the administration. At my district this has reached absurdity where no elected official knows the number of students per class, nor does any board think fit to demand this information.
What I am describing is a complete inversion of the proper subordination of SAUs to elected authority, made possible by elected officials themselves and against the interests of those they represent. The crisis in education funding is not funding at all. It is management.
This is why a group of elected school officials past and present have formed the School District Governance Association of New Hampshire. Our goal is to educate school district elected officials as to their lawful responsibilities and empower them to take back knowledge and power from the SAUs that have usurped them.
We hope to bring back local control to education and in doing so improve both budgeting and education.
Donna Green is president of the School District Governance Association and the Sandown representative on the Timberlane Regional School Boards.