Testimony by AFT-NH Deb Howes on SB 1393 (School Budget Cap)

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Testimony of AFT-NH on HB 1393

From Debrah Howes, President AFT-NH

To the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee Dear Chairman Gray and members of the committee:

My name is Debrah Howes. I am the president of the American Federation of Teachers -NH. AFT-NH represents 3,500 teachers, paraeducators and school support staff, public service employees and higher education staff across New Hampshire.

I write to oppose House Bill 1393. This bill would impose burdensome budget constraints on our schools at a time when they should be focused on helping students recover from the pandemic. By setting up a “fast track” process for local school budget caps to be proposed and voted on - potentially by only a small minority of residents - this bill could hamstring district budgets and drain funding from our public schools before most parents or voters even know the ramifications.

HB 1393 would:

  • Permit rigid school budget caps to be proposed by any school board or as few as 25 voters in a school district.
  • Require only a short 15-30-day window between a school board public hearing on such a proposed cap, and the school district meeting when it would be voted on.
  • Allow a cap to pass by a 3/5th majority of the voters present and voting at the district meeting. (In other words, it’s possible that a very small minority of a town’s residents would have the power to impose a cap that would affect all children and families in a district.)
  • Only allow voters to override the budget cap by a 3/5th majority town meeting vote (even if budget caps are clearly hurting the quality of education in a district).

HB 1393’s fatal flaw is that it ties caps to student attendance numbers (also called average daily membership), with no flexibility for fluctuations in those numbers or for districts to cover unforeseen cost hikes in expenditures such as heating and cooling. It’s not hard to see why this approach is bound to drive many school districts into a downward spiral:

  • First, the bill pretends that districts can “manage” budget variables that are actually impossible to control. For example, during the pandemic, schools experienced sudden, dramatic enrollment declines. These enrollment losses were temporary—but under HB 1393, any temporary dip in enrollment would set off needless and painful belt- tightening, making it that much harder to attract students and families back. Another example: The bill does not take into account the overarching operational costs that are difficult to predict or control. Who knows what our nation’s heating costs or gas prices will look like next winter, for example?
 
  • Because there is no budgeting flexibility in the bill (except for a nod to inflation), respecting the budget caps could force districts to cut important services and programs students rely on, such as transportation services; school nurses and social workers; and athletics, music, and art. It could also cause teacher and staff layoffs. These cuts would hit hard, especially in poor districts with less ability to make up funding gaps through other means of fundraising. As budget caps start to affect school quality and families leave a “capped” school district, less and less funding would be available to that district to address the very problems that are compelling families to leave.
  • And there is no requirement that a cap be set high enough for a district to continue to provide existing educational programming and services. This could lead to students and families losing services, including the public schools they currently want and rely on with little notice or warning, possibly at the hands of a small number of voters. If that sounds extreme, consider the recent experience in Croydon.

New Hampshire families don’t need or want this bill. They don’t need it because state law already gives voters a process for limiting spending by school districts, through their vote on budgets at town meetings. They don’t want it either: National and state polling by Hart Research shows that across the country, parents overwhelmingly support their public schools and rate them highly; what’s more, New Hampshire parents in particular want to see investment in public schools, vs. attempts to privative or outsource them.

These poll results were doubly validated by the recent school district elections across the state, which saw pro-public education school board candidates victorious, and most educator union contracts approved with significant raises. Granite Staters want a laser focus on funding education and giving our kids the schools, they deserve.

After everything our children have been through with the pandemic, this bill could disrupt our students’ learning environments and remove the very services, programs, and staff that are helping them recover from the uncertainty of the past two years. This is not the time for legislators to push a misguided effort to deprive our public schools of funding and resources. Our children need their schools far too much right now. I urge you to oppose HB 1393.

Sincerely,

Debrah Howes President, AFT-NH