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Lawmakers Propose Fix To ‘COVID Effect’ On N.H. School Budgets

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Lawmakers are looking for ways to help school districts address anticipated budget shortfalls resulting from declines in enrollment during the pandemic.

New Hampshire saw a four percent dip in public school enrollment this year, as more families opted for homeschooling and private school rather than remote learning. Many see this as a temporary shift and assume that when schools fully reopen, most families will return.

But the current state funding formula sends money to schools for next year based on 2020-21 enrollment.

And there's another glitch: Far fewer families are filling out applications for free and reduced price meals during the pandemic, in spite of what many districts say is an ever-growing need. The state uses those applications to calculate the number of low-income students in districts, which translates directly to state aid.

With millions in school funding on the line, cities are asking the state for help, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed a fix: calculate state aid on enrollment and poverty data on 2019, instead of this year.

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

Republican Sen. Erin Hennessey of Littleton has introduced legislation which looks at districts’ enrollment for the past two years, and asks the state to calculate funding based on the higher of the two.

Hennessey says in most cases, the state would use 2019 numbers, but the few communities that saw enrollment and free and reduced lunch applications spike during the pandemic will not be harmed.

A bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene, SB145, would also calculate aid based on 2019, and it would maintain a form of aid that property-poor communities received in the 2020-21 school year, called “fiscal disparity aid.”

Democrats are also pushing for a major overhaul of the state’s education funding formula, but Kahn says in the meantime, towns with the lowest property values per student – many of which have the highest property tax rates – should continue to receive additional aid.

In both Democratic and Republican bills, state money for school districts would be lower than fiscal year 2021.

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

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