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Bill Would Suspend New Hampshire’s School Building Aid

Tue March 23, 2010 - Northeast Edition

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) Voters in Lebanon will decide whether to replace an aging junior high school before a looming suspension in state school construction aid would make the project too costly for city taxpayers to shoulder on their own.

Lebanon voters have rejected the project three times in two years, even though the fire escapes on the upper floors are windows with no rescue ladders and closets are being used as offices by some teachers.

In December, school officials considered not presenting the question to voters for a fourth time because a legislative committee was considering asking the Legislature to suspend aid to new projects like the $25 million needed to replace the school. But the committee backed away from recommending an immediate suspension since more than $250 million in projects were ready for votes at town meetings this spring.

Instead, the panel suggested implementing one after July 1, and on March 2, the Senate Education Committee heard state Sen. Molly Kelly’s bill to do so. The bill calls for a two-year suspension, but Kelly wants to change it to one year and allow exceptions for emergencies.

A one-year suspension would give voters in Lebanon and other New Hampshire towns a chance to get their projects through this spring before Kelly’s study committee returns in the fall with recommended changes to the cash-strapped aid program. The panel is studying ways to fund the program as well as deal with inequities, such as helping poorer districts that have a harder time getting local support for projects than cities and wealthier districts. It has until November to issue a final report.

The state has provided the aid since 1955 and paid cash until the economic downturn forced it to approve borrowing $131 million for the program. The state’s annual aid payments have risen from $15 million in 1997 to nearly $45 million this year, according to Ed Murdough at the state Department of Education.

New Hampshire reimburses school districts between 30 and 60 percent of the costs of construction, land acquisition, planning and design, furniture, fixtures and equipment. The state sets some limits on the size of projects eligible for aid, but communities are free to exceed that at their own expense. The state does not pay its share upfront, rather it pays its portion of the principal of a district’s bond payments over the life of the borrowing. If not enough money is budgeted, districts get a pro-rated aid amount.

Gov. John Lynch backed borrowing the state’s share of the costs to help balance the state budget, but the state treasurer said the state can’t rely on borrowing to fund the program.

Lynch supports suspending aid with an exception for safety issues to give Kelly’s panel time to work on an overhaul.

“As it is currently structured, New Hampshire’s building aid program is unsustainable and unfair. We need to restructure the building aid program so that children in poorer school districts have a better chance of getting better facilities,” Lynch said.

Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, and Dean Michener, associate director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, are wary that the state will limit aid rather than meet its responsibility to all schools.

Joyce wants the panel to look at need broadly and take into account that over half of New Hampshire’s school buildings are more than 50 years old. Need should encompass the age of the facilities, not just a community’s ability to raise property taxes to pay for renovations and new buildings, he said.

“We have towns that need brand new schools that might not be seen as property poor,” he said.

“What we have works,” added Michener. “I understand that the state’s commitment and the cost obligation to the state has grown significantly. But that’s a result of the significant work that is needed on the aging facilities throughout the state.”

Lebanon Junior High School was built when Calvin Coolidge was president and is an example of an aging school building. Superintendent Mike Harris said the brick building’s hallways on the second and third floors are dead ends. Fire trucks would be counted on to hoist ladders to the windows in an emergency, he said. Sprinklers had to be installed two years ago to win a safety waiver from fire officials and keep the school open.

The nurse’s office is in a former broom closet, added school board Chairwoman Laura Dykstra. Three special education teachers also use former broom closets and the school psychologist has a former chemical storage room for the science lab.

On March 9, Lebanon’s voters will vote whether to replace the 7 to 8 grade school with a middle school for grades 5 to 8. If voters approve the construction, Lebanon will close the 85-year-old school and one that is 150 years old, said Harris.

It will be the first school Lebanon has built in 50 years, said Harris.

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