12/13/2012 - In accordance with state law, New Hampshire distributed $3,450 per student for Fiscal Year 2012. Though some districts can obtain more state aid through a couple different channels, there is no choice in the matter for the state; it must spend $3,450 per student.
But on the local level, there is more choice in terms of communities’ contributions to education.
Manchester schools have been hit hard with negative headlines recently, tied mainly to overcrowding issues. As school opened this fall, some high school class sizes exceeded 40 students, well above the state standard of 30 for high schools. The overcrowding, coupled with inadequate numbers of textbooks and furniture — at least to start the year — has prompted Candia and Hooksett to consider pulling its students out of Manchester. Manchester laid off more than 160 teachers last year, which contributed to the overcrowding.
The Queen City has long taken its share of hits regarding education funding. The longstanding perception has been that even when the state directs additional aid to Manchester for education, the board of mayor and aldermen would in turn reduce the city’s contribution until education was essentially level-funded compared to the previous year. Supt. Thomas Brennan said earlier this fall he hasn’t been able to investigate whether that perception is reality — but he’s heard it.
What is reality is that the Manchester community funds education, at least in terms of per pupil expenditures, at a rate significantly lower than the state average, as well as the most comparable city in the state, Nashua. On average, across all grades, Manchester spent $10,283 per student during the 2011-2012 school year. Nashua spent $10,991 per student during the same school year, and the state average was $13,159 per student. Bedford spent $11,385 per student, while Hopkinton spent $15,623 per student.
“We spend $185 million on education,” said Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, adding that that figure includes between $20 and $25 million from the federal government that other communities do not receive. Gatsas said that money is not included in per pupil expenditures.
Does the district just need to spend more on education?
“I think anybody would tell you they’d like more money, but I’m not too sure at this time that taxpayers are prepared to pay more,” Gatsas said.
To Gatsas, looking at funding figures is secondary; student achievement supersedes all. To reach greater student achievement, Gatsas said the district needs to find the best teachers.
“Sometimes funding is not necessarily the problem,” Gatsas said. “There are ways you can get there and ways you can’t get there...”
Community property tax rates tell a story as well. Manchester’s total property tax rate of $21.96 per thousand assessed dollars is slightly higher than the state average of $20.22. But Manchester’s local education tax rate is $6.72, compared to the state average of $10.00. The average town tax rate is $6.20, while Manchester’s city tax rate is $11.62. On average, nearly 50 percent of communities’ property tax bills go to education, but in Manchester it’s 30 percent, according to statistics from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. Nashua, the most comparable city in the state, has a local education tax rate of $9.16, compared to a $8.30 rate for the city side.
These figures do not include the statewide property tax, which funds the state’s adequacy payments. Each community pays about the same statewide property tax rate, with some variation to allow for communities with more or less updated property assessments. That money essentially goes out one pocket and lands back in the other, said Daniel Barrick, deputy director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.
Manchester does have a municipal tax cap now, but Barrick said the city’s education spending trends appear to predate the tax cap. He cited the Center’s report, which followed spending trends back to 2005.
“It’s a reflection of what the taxable property is,” Barrick said. “The number doesn’t necessarily mean anything on its own.”
Another way to look at education spending is to consider per resident expenditures. In 2010, the average Manchester resident paid $1,221 in the local education taxes, and another $190 in the statewide property tax, for a total of $1,411. In Nashua, the average resident paid $1,592 on education taxes, between the local tax rate and the statewide property tax rate. In 2010, the average New Hampshire property taxpayer spent $2,329 on education, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies’ report.
Those figures don’t tell the whole story for Manchester though. The Queen City has unique needs, for sure, as the largest city in northern New England. The Manchester school district has the most challenges in terms of diversity -- diversity across ethnicities and diversity across socioeconomic conditions. Manchester receives more adequacy money than other communities, particularly since it has a much greater proportion of English language learners.
Gatsas has pushed for redistricting, and the board signed off on his proposal. Gatsas said discussions have begun in that direction. He sees room for schools to expand educational opportunities, without necessarily adding cost. He mentioned a possible program where students could take courses at local colleges. Gatsas suggested finding ways of allowing students more flexibility: if a student has played an instrument for 15 years, do they really need to take a class to get credit for it?
While the district has faced controversy and negativity this year, Gatsas still sees plenty to be proud of. He points to the district’s diversity, as well as the strength of the teachers in the classroom, as real positives during a difficult time.