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Berlin Mayor: Lawsuit a Possibility in Effort to Restore State Education Aid Program

James F Clay/FLICKR

A coalition of New Hampshire towns and cities is hoping to reverse a decision to end the state’s stabilization education grant program.

The grants were put in place four years ago as a way to offset the impact of changes made at the time to the state’s education adequacy formula.

The state distributes roughly $150 million in stabilization grants each year to districts that are generally lower income and have seen declining student enrollment.

Lawmakers in Concord approved a bill last year that ends the program, cutting aid by 4 percent each year, phasing it out entirely in 25 years.

Paul Grenier is mayor of Berlin, one of the communities dealing with that loss in state aid.

He joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about the issue.

Can you explain how the loss of stabilization grants will affect Berlin?

Last year, the height of state education aid to Berlin, was $10,247,000. We are slated to lose $219,000 per year until 25 years goes out. And what that essentially does is it removes 55 percent of state for education to the city of Berlin. Right now, if we change nothing, we have to raise taxes 52 cents per $1,000 just to make up for the loss in state aid to education. That’s without addressing any of the other issues Berlin is dealing with.

What other factors are happening right now also affecting your budget?

We had a revaluation last year where we lost $36 million in taxable value, even when utility values within the city actually increased by $12 million. So the one bright area where the city of Berlin could have gained a little revenue was lost due to the fact we can’t tax utility properties for schools.

How is the city managing the budget through all of this?

Cuts, and they’re brutal. The year that we’re operating in now was the first year of the loss of stabilization money. We were able to work with the schools, they had a little bit of an operating surplus, so we were able to do things and get creative. These are things you can do one, maybe two fiscal years before you really start trimming your school budgets, which means increasing class sizes, eliminating teachers, cutting extracurricular activities. And what happens is you further disincentive anybody from relocating to Berlin to maybe set up shop or do something in the Great North Woods here.

There are lawmakers who say these stabilization grants were never meant to be permanent. Was that your understanding?

It was never my understanding. The stabilization grants were instituted as a result of the Londonderry lawsuit. The state, in my opinion, walked away from its responsibility again.

You met last month with officials from other communities that will also be affected by these stabilization grants being phased out. What are you hoping to see happen?

We’re hoping at least to have the stabilization grants frozen. The way these grants are being eliminated, it doesn’t even allow the communities to catch their breath.

Are you just hoping to keep the grants in place until the state can come up with a long-term education funding plan?

We hope that we can come to some kind of resolution, but it looks like the only way the state ever reacts to anything is lawsuit driven. We’re going to take the high road. I know that the consortium of communities want to go through the legislative process so that we can hopefully right this wrong, but if it doesn’t happen, we will have to litigate.

If legal action were to be taken, by the consortium or your city, what would the legal grounds be?

We would have to go back to “Claremont 1” and “Claremont 2.” The state has never adequately defined what an adequate education is, and the courts seem to side with the communities.

What are you hearing from residents in your city?

They’re pretty much fed up. They work hard, they’re trying to move the community forward. We’re digging ourselves out of a pretty tough hole with the loss of the paper mills here. Every time we seem to make incremental progress, we get pushed back into the hole.

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