The city of Berlin has struggled for years with cuts in state funding to its schools. But this spring, there was hope that the Democrat-controlled legislature would send more aid to Berlin and other poor cities and towns. Governor Sununu’s veto of that budget in June means Berlin is now in limbo, even as students head back to school.
On Monday morning, Berlin district staff crowd into the high school cafeteria for a meeting with the district superintendent, Julie King.
Once King gets everyone’s attention, she cuts to the chase.
“We know we’re not over the challenges,” she begins. “We do not have a state budget yet. We know that we are facing those tiers of cuts we talked about last spring.”
Those tiers of cuts due to state aid total around a million dollars, over 5% of what the district spends each year. That’s on top of annual declines in per-pupil adequacy aid to Berlin because of student population loss. But with the state budget undecided and a local property tax rate nearly twice the state average, Berlin doesn’t have any wiggle room - it’s had to cut a nursing position, aide positions, some sports equipment, and all school supplies.
This comes after the school board's decision this winter to close its last stand-alone elementary school. Now, to fit all Berlin’s students in just two buildings, the junior high schoolers will now go to the high school, which will require nearly all teachers to share classrooms.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” King says, sitting in the high school library amidst boxes of middle school books. “Teachers are used to having their own space - now they’re doubling up and sharing classrooms. How is that gonna work? There’s a lot of collaboration. It has the potential to have a good outcome, but it’s difficult going.”
Down the hall, 7th and 8th grade english teachers Anne Kopp and James Delizza are sorting through boxes of old books in their new classroom, figuring out which ones to keep.
Kopp reaches into a box.
“The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories,” she reads, then tosses it in the throw away pile.
Before this year, Kopp and Delizza had their own classroom. Now, they’ll have to leave when the other is teaching, and several periods a day, they’ll both have their homeroom classes here - that’s a total of 35 kids in a room clearly not designed for that many.
Kopp is used to Berlin serving as the symbol of what’s broken in the state’s education funding formula.
“Somebody has to be the poster child," she says. "I just feel that the way we are presented as the poster children isn’t in a helpful way. We are the ‘downtrodden district’ and I wish we were the poster children in a more positive light, because we do a good job with what we’ve got.”
One floor down, high school civics and economics teacher Ted McCormick points to a stack of notebooks he says he just bought for his students with his own money, because there isn’t any from the district.
“We have students coming in two days, so we have to teach them something,” he says. “And we’re going to teach them something with whatever we have and we’re not going to complain too much about it.”
Earlier this year, it looked like Berlin’s pleas to lawmakers for more money might pay off. The vetoed budget would have sent over $4 million more to Berlin over the next two years. But as things stand now, Berlin’s schools are getting $220,000 less than last year.
"Next year if we don't get money, we're going to have to say goodbye to programs and staff," McCormick says. "We're just going to have to do it."
In the midst of these budget woes, Berlin’s school consolidation is getting mixed reactions. The student population has been declining for decades since its mills closed; some say if the trend continues, there will be plenty of room in the high school for 6th through 12th grade students.
But 6th grader Hannah Melendy says she and her friends are nervous.
“We’re all scared to go into a new building. We’re scared of high schoolers.” she says. “Mostly what I think about is bullying. We think it might be worse at the high school.”
Down the street at the elementary school, bus driver Renee Stewart says she’s optimistic students can adjust to the mix of grade levels.
“A lot of schools do it already. Buses already had 6th grade through 12th grade on the bus,” she says. “People are going to get out of it what they want.”
Stewart and a group of volunteers from her church are here to spruce up the tiny elementary school playground, which, since the district closed its K-2 school, will now serve about 250 more young kids.
As a group of women paint a hopscotch course in pastel colors, Stewart lines up the new fence. She says her union - like every union in the district - was up for a contract this year, but all negotiations are on hold because the city doesn’t know how much money it will get from the state.
“We’re just kind of hoping, waiting it out, and seeing,” she says.
Mayor Paul Grenier says this standstill is taking its toll. The city had to pass a budget in June and they were counting on what the Governor’s office and lawmakers had promised them.
“They have all told us: ‘We’re going to fix education, you’re going to get more money,” Grenier says.
But without more money, city government is essentially in a hiring freeze, down a fire chief and several police officers.
“When does it end?” he asks. “The state is essentially handing Berlin a shovel and telling us to dig our own grave.”
Grenier’s right hand man is Jim Wheeler. Wheeler is technically the city manager, but during the hiring freeze, he’s also served as public works director and fire chief.
Wheeler says he's seen hard times - mills closing, declining tax base, the search for a new economic identity - but he didn’t expect this.
“I thought it was going to be over by now. And from everything I can see and glean it looks like it might go on for some time."
There's a cloud of uncertainty over Berlin. Veteran teachers are talking about leaving, and new teachers are harder to recruit. Wheeler's 11th grade daughter was planning to take chemistry this year, but there’s no chemistry teacher anymore. For now, all the district can offer is an online course.
Wheeler's daughter will be applying for colleges soon. She’ll want to show science classes on her transcript.
“My daughter’s not going to be able to do that because she doesn’t have chemistry. I mean, are you kidding me?” Wheeler pauses, and takes a deep breath. “As you can tell it’s a bit emotional when it comes to your own kid. It really is - it’s flabbergasting.”
School funding remains front and center as lawmakers and Governor Sununu continue to spar over the state budget. Wheeler says he’s still hopeful a deal will be reached, and state officials won’t forget their promises to Berlin.