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Citing Pandemic Challenges, N.H. Mayors Ask For More School Funding

Dan Tuohy for NHPR
Mayors say the stresses of the pandemic, in addition to rate increases to state retirement contributions, is causing major budget shortfalls for schools.

A group of mayors and school board chairmen from across New Hampshire are calling on Governor Chris Sununu, Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, and Republican leaders in the State House to help address budget shortfalls for public schools.

In a letter sent Thursday, mayors of the state's major cities say their schools are facing budget challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. They point to a decrease in student enrollment as families opt for home schooling or private school options, and a majordecline in the number of families filling out formsto receive free and reduced lunch.

Since federal and state education aid relies on numbers from the previous year, the unusual trends during the pandemic could determine funding for the academic year starting in fall 2021. This means that in most cities, cuts in state and federal aid could be just around the corner.

Under the current funding formula, Manchester is looking at $3.6 million less in state aid for low-income students next year because of a decline in the number of families completing forms during remote schooling. The district would also see less money from the state because of a dip in enrollment.

The Keene school district is looking at a shortfall of several million, in spite of planning for a flat budget next year.

“Schools are experiencing a lot of stress, just like a lot of other industries, whether it’s the restaurant industry or hospitality industry,” says Keene mayor George Hansel, who signed onto the letter.

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

“An important part of the value proposition to moving to a place like Keene or anywhere else in rural New Hampshire is: you have to have a good school district. Part of this letter is making sure they can continue doing what they need to do, which is provide a good, adequate education.”

New Hampshire is gearing up to receive its second installment of federal relief aid to cover pandemic-related costs at schools, including supplying internet to students whose schools are remote, and purchasing PPE, air purifiers, and cleaning supplies.

So far, K-12 schools in New Hampshire have received close to $90 million in federal relief aid, with $156 million more expected in the coming weeks. And after an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday, schools can also begin getting reimbursed by FEMA for certain COVID-related expenses.

However, the federal relief so far covers just a small fraction of the roughly $3.5 billion New Hampshire schools are spending this year.

Senate President Chuck Morse responded to the mayors’ letter in an email, writing: “Among several bills filed this year regarding education funding will be ones that specifically address school enrollment and the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. The aim of these bills is to assure that our school districts do not lose state funding because of the pandemic. We will be working with our mayors and school districts as we develop the next state budget.”

At a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu called the mayors' concerns were "very legitimate," and said the state was looking at ways to disintengle the free and reduced meal numbers from the state's funding formula.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Gov. Sununu's response to the letter.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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