June 25, 2008

When School Districts Divorce, Taxpayers Pay

In colonial New Hampshire, it was legal and acceptable for communities to "warn" poor newcomers out of town, and for the constable to transport a non-indigenous indigent to the town line and deposit the person on the other side. Sadly, that ethic lives on in the specious debate over so-called donor towns and in the continuing dissolution of the state's cooperative school districts.

In the past three years alone, the state Board of Education has received 10 requests from communities, including six in just two months last year, to withdraw from or break up cooperative school districts. Recently, the Valley News of Lebanon reported that the Mascoma Valley Regional School District is exploring a breakup, and Windham is planning to leave the Pelham School District.

Last year Barnstead voted to abandon Pittsfield and create its own school administrative unit. The state board, which can advise against a divorce but not stop one, approved the split. The year before, Sunapee left Croydon and Newport and started its own school district.

The dissolutions are superficially about local control and fundamentally about money. They increase the gap between the haves and have-nots and are, at heart, selfish. Most cooperative agreements require that a community's contribution be based on the size of the town's tax base as much or more than on enrollment. Rich towns grouse because on a per-pupil basis they pay substantially more.

Going it alone may save well-off communities a little money, but at great cost to their neighbors and to the quality of education all students receive. And the less the state pays toward funding the education of every student, the greater the incentive rich towns have for leaving cooperative school districts.

The New Hampshire breakups run counter to what's going on in almost every other state. Since 1938, over 100,000, or about 90 percent, of the nation's school districts have been eliminated. That number continues to shrink as transportation improvements and technological advances make collaboration easier.

Increasing rather than shrinking the number of school districts is wasting money and making New Hampshire more insular. The duplication, in buildings, salaries for superintendents and business administrators, - typically the most highly paid people in district - drains money away from kids and classrooms. And while small school districts might cut transportation costs and travel time, they severely limit the offerings available to students and the salaries necessary to attract and keep top notch teachers.

New Hampshire has, at last count, 102 separate school districts. That's probably twice as many as it needs. A 2005 study by Syracuse University's Center for Policy Research found that doubling the enrollment of a school district cuts per-pupil costs by a whopping 28 percent for a 300-student district and 9 percent for a 1,500- pupil district.

The waste in money and lost educational opportunities inherent in the state's balkanized public education will continue until the governor and Legislature address school funding in a way that treats New Hampshire as one state and not a collection of rival fiefdoms.

Originally published by Monitor staff.

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