Two Schools Diverge in N.H. Woods

A court order to equalize education spending stirs debate in nation's most antitax state.

Slouching on a hallway bench beneath decaying asbestos ceiling panels, Franklin High School's basketball heroes are exulting to friends - but not about their recent nip-and-tuck game. Instead, they are raving about the plumbing in the locker room at rival Bow High.

"I couldn't believe the hot water in those showers," says senior John Costella, comparing it with the meager spritz produced by the 48-year-old boiler beneath Franklin High's gym. "They have computers in every class," he adds. "I'm telling you, if I went to school there, every morning I would kiss the floor."

These two Granite State high schools - located just a few miles apart - underscore the disparities that can emerge when property taxes are the bedrock of school funding. While at least a dozen states are now being forced to change the way they pay for public education, New Hampshire may well represent the most vociferous clash between those two titanic themes in American political life - taxes and education.

More than any other state in the nation, New Hampshire relies on local property taxes, rather than state aid and federal funding, to fund public schools. Now that the state Supreme Court has said that the entire education-funding system is unconstitutional, New Hampshirites must somehow reconcile their famous dislike for taxation with the need to equalize education spending between rich towns, like Bow, with poorer towns like Franklin.

The New Hampshire ruling follows similar decisions this year in Ohio and Vermont, advancing a 30-year national trend of poor towns suing to halt the use of property taxes as the main source of public-school funding.

In the past three decades, towns have won 18 lawsuits against their states - half the total number of suits brought. In at least 10 states, court decisions are pending on state mechanisms for school funding.

Since 1989, however, towns have been winning more suits, says Mary Fulton of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. She credits better legal presentations and a judiciary that increasingly views education as a fundamental right.

"These suits have not come out of nowhere," says Terry Whitney, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The court decisions are flowing from the movement for [state educational] standards. That's why most recent decisions deal with this issue of what exactly is an 'adequate' education."

In the one-time farming community of Bow, the high school is a $16 million limestone-and-pink-brick building. With fresh paint, carpeted classrooms, and a glass-walled mini-gym glinting in the afternoon sunshine, the facility is one of the finest in the state. It's paid for by property taxes of Bow residents, plus those from a coal-fired power plant in town.

For the 450 students at Franklin High, meanwhile, change can't come soon enough. Principal Robert Braman describes a school barely hanging on, with low teacher salaries, high teacher turnover, and computers cobbled together from spare parts of donated machines.

Music, art, and spring sports have all been cut from the budget to provide for more basic needs, like textbooks. Then there's the 200-page report recommending repair or replacement of nearly everything in the building. Indeed, some floor tiles are worn full of holes, and old asbestos ceilings are covered in makeshift plastic to keep them from flaking onto the cakes baked in home-economics classes.

"I've worked in four different school districts in New Hampshire, and I've never seen anything like this," Mr. Braman says.

To Thomas Connair, a lawyer in Claremont, N.H., who worked on the school-funding case for nine years, the court's Dec. 17 ruling is a fair one.

"This decision by our judicial branch is a courageous statement that the status quo in 'Live Free or Die' politics is unconstitutional," says Mr. Connair, who predicts that the addition of state and federal funds will more equitably fund the schools.

But others see a fight to the finish over taxation.

State Sen. James Rubens, a candidate for governor, decries the court's decision as "the most abrupt and radical change to state and local government in this century." His goal: nullify the court ruling with a state constitutional amendment.

But New Hampshire is now on the clock. As in neighboring Vermont, the court gave state lawmakers one year to set a standard of "adequacy" in education - and to devise a new statewide funding mechanism.

One way would be to join the other 49 states and adopt a state income tax. But this notion is anathema in a state where candidates for political office routinely take the "no-tax pledge" in front of editorial boards of local newspapers.

Roy Stewart of Granite State Taxpayers, a statewide antitax group, says, "The people of New Hampshire still don't want a broad-based tax. They've never elected anyone who favored them. I can't imagine they will anytime soon."

While it remains unclear whether the two sides will meet on middle ground or a battleground, it's clear that many New Hampshirites seem disinclined to change what they fondly call their "tax advantage" over neighboring states. With no state income tax or state sales tax, New Hampshire uses property taxes to fund almost everything - including more than 90 percent of its education spending.

That's worked fine in Bow, where property-tax revenues get a big boost from the power plant. It adds $287 million to the assessed value of property in the district - 45 percent of the total. That allows Bow to spend $409,000 total per pupil compared with just $195,000 per pupil in Franklin.

With less property value to tax, Franklin taxes property owners at a higher rate ($18.83 per $1,000 of assessed valuation) than does Bow ($12.41) - but it still raises far less money. Bow spends $5,507 for each third grader. Franklin spends $4,069 - far below the state average of $5,052 per student.

While experts dispute the impact of spending on learning, dollars may play a role in Bow and Franklin. Third-graders tested for language and math proficiency in Bow did far better in both than did third-graders from Franklin.

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