In the 1990s, a string of New Hampshire Supreme Court cases established the state's responsibility to fund an "adequate" education. These days, however, an adequate education is funded primarily by local property taxes, and rates vary from town to town. John Tobin is part of the team leading a charge to pressure the state to pay more of that bill. He is former executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance and he represented the plaintiffs in the Claremont Supreme Court cases. Now he is leading education funding forums around the state. NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Tobin about his efforts.
One of the things the state has used recently to help towns like Berlin for example that are not exactly property rich but their tax rates are high is stabilization grants. The state pays these to help towns that are falling short property tax-wise. Why, in your view, are state stabilization grants not working out so well?
The problem with them is the state is cutting them. They were intended as a substitute during the O'Brien legislature. Several key parts of the formula for adequate education were cut. One of them was supposed to help property poor districts. It was called fiscal disparity aid. That legislature eliminated that and weakened some of the other parts of the formula. The stabilization aid was supposed to make up for that so that those cuts wouldn't hit these districts. But then three years ago the legislature decided to start cutting stabilization aid itself. And since that money went disproportionately to towns that really needed it with lots of poor kids and low property values, it's hitting those towns hard. So, many of those towns are in crisis mode with others not far behind. We know about the Berlins and the Pittsfields and the Claremonts. Stabilization aid also goes to Manchester and Nashua and other places who are also feeling these cuts very severely.
So how should the state chip in more? Is it through a boosting of the stabilization grants or is it a complete overhaul of the way we pay for education in New Hampshire or is it something else in your view?
I think the immediate stop to the bleeding would be to stop the cuts on stabilization grants. But that's only to stop the bleeding until you really fix the overall problem. The state needs to figure out a way to pay for what it prescribes the schools must do in a way that's fair across the state where everybody is paying the same rate.
But would that mean an income tax?
Well it could mean a lot of different things. One of the things that we've realized is that because of the disparities in property values, three quarters of the students in New Hampshire public schools live in districts where the property values are below average. Just about three quarters of the taxpayers are in those districts. So there's a huge proportion of people in the state whose school districts and tax bills are adversely affected. There are lots of different ways to deal with this. What we're trying to do now is really the basic step of getting people to understand how the current system works and how unfair it is and how arbitrary it is.
How do you do that in an age where so much political oxygen is taken up by the president's tweets? How do you get people interested in property taxes and education funding?
We have been really pleasantly flabbergasted by the interest in this. Andru Volinsky who was my colleague in the Claremont case and the current executive councilor had done a couple of forums at local places explaining the system. So we decided to go ahead and try to do forums around the state and the response has been remarkable. More than 100 people in Pittsfield, close to 150 people in Newport, a good crowd in Derry. We have another one tomorrow night in Berlin. We have six or seven more.
We have a tax system structurally that exacerbates the problem and it also exacerbates the problem of affordable housing. When you talk quietly to town officials around the state they are ambivalent at best in many places about developing new housing for families because they worry about the impact on school budgets. When you step back from that and think about that. Is that a healthy society where we have a tax system that discourages building housing for new families and discourages the formation of new business in dozens and dozens of municipalities? That is striking a chord with people.
You've been putting out a call for people or parents or school districts or property tax payers to step forward as possible plaintiffs in a case against the state since at least May of this year. Has anybody or has a group of people stepped forward to perhaps challenge the state?
I think there are lots of people willing to do that. Actually what we've been doing since May is really de-emphasizing that. I am quietly talking and recruiting lawyers to do that if we must. But the far preferable thing would be to resolve this through the democratic process and the legislative process. So that's what I'm emphasizing and that's what Andru Volinsky is emphasizing. We are trying to get people to talk to their legislators.
What we're actually asking people to do is follow around the candidates for the state House of Representatives, the state Senate and the governor’s race and ask them some questions. What are you going to do about these disproportioned property tax rates? How are you going to help make sure that the state actually pays much more of what it's obligated to pay for? What we're really trying to do is use our civics, our democratic process to get this issue before people. And we're having a lot of success.