A Leveling of Granite State Schools

Court decision sparks moves to remove local spending disparity

PUBLIC-SCHOOL children in Franklin, an old mill town in central New Hampshire, have simply learned to get by with less.

The elementary school, for example, offers neither art nor gym classes, and there is no librarian. In the high school, students attend classes in a 56-year-old building with peeling paint, crumbling floor tiles, a tiny library, and a small auditorium that doubles as a gymnasium.

Just 20 miles west in Gilford, students practice for a play in Gilford Middle High School's spacious auditorium. Students here have access to two computer labs, a modern library, and extensive music and theater programs.

Why the difference in the two public-school systems? In the Granite State, local property taxes fund 90 percent of most public education. The result is a wide disparity in public-education opportunities - from the abundant resources of property-rich communities to the bare-bones minimum of schools in communities with small tax bases.

Critics say the state's system for funding education through local property taxes is unfair. ``It ought not to matter where you were born in the state of New Hampshire in order to have the same educational opportunities,'' says the Franklin schools superintendent, Edgar Melanson.

Many, like Mr. Melanson, want school financing to change. And a state Supreme Court decision in December, which placed the burden on the state to provide ``adequate'' education standards, has opened the door for reform.

The ruling was made following a petition filed against the state by five school districts with small property-tax bases, or ``property poor'' communities.

Now, a lower court must determine what is an adequate education and whether the current public-education-financing system is fair. Lawyers representing the five school districts will meet April 8 with state officials to work out a timetable for the case, including a possible trial date.

Other states have wrestled with public-school finance. Indeed, 29 states have been challenged legally for inequities in school funding based on local property taxes, and 14 states have had their systems declared unconstitutional. States provide an average 40 percent to 50 percent of total funding for their schools, says Chris Pipho, spokesman for the Education Commission of the States.

The issue is significant in this conservative New England state that relies heavily on property taxes and continues to resist a sales or income tax. Conserva-tives feel change will mean added taxes. But critics point to the fact that New Hampshire ranks 50th of all states in percentage of state funding appropriated for schools. In addition to the 90 percent of public-school funding that comes from local property taxes, the federal government provides 3 percent, and the state hands out 6 percent to 7 percent.

A closer look at two communities helps illustrates the problem. Gilford benefits from being a resort community with a broad tax base. Thanks to the many summer cottages that line nearby Lake Winnipesaukee and condominiums near Gunstock ski resort, a large property-tax base helps finance schools.

Meanwhile, the once-prosperous woolen mill town of Franklin - which lost its manufacturing base in the 1950s - barely has enough money to keep up a music program in its elementary school. Indeed, education costs per pupil in the two communities show a clear disparity: For a Franklin public high-school student, the average per-pupil education cost is approximately $4,600 while the same figure in Gilford is approximately $7,000.

MEANWHILE, state lawmakers are proposing different reforms. State Rep. Douglas Hall (R) advocates banning the use of the property tax as a revenue source for schools in three years, similar to what Michigan did last July. He wants to establish a statewide property and income tax to make up for the lost local revenues. Other versions have been proposed but without the income tax.

State Rep. Patricia Skinner (R), on other hand, wants to beef up state education aid for property-poor communities. But state Sen. Wayne King (D) says such a solution is merely a ``band-aid approach'' since it doesn't change funding by property taxes.

Instead, he advocates an equal statewide property-tax assessment for every community. He also says revenues to equalize educational opportunities can be used from the recently enacted business-enterprise tax as well as the business-profits tax.

``The issue, really, is: Are we going to put some band aids on the problem, or are we, really, going to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem that is going to have a long-term impact?'' says Senator King.

Granite State officials, for their part, continue to resist a sales or income tax. State Commissioner of Education Charles Marston says the state has a better education system than many people realize. For example, New Hampshire stacks up well against other states if total per-pupil expenditures are compared.

And retaining local control over schools is key, says Mr. Marston. ``There is a very strong tradition, particularly in this state, that argues that people who are closest to the action are ... probably going to make the better decisions,'' he says.

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