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N.H. Officials Seek to Restore State School Building Aid

New Hampshire finds itself on the hook for $539 million through 2040 to pay off more than 360 projects.

Sat December 13, 2014 - Northeast Edition
Kathleen Ronayne - ASSOCIATED PRESS

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) When Toni Weinstein of Newmarket was deciding whether to enroll her fifth grade son in private school, the condition of the town’s junior-senior high school crossed her mind: classrooms so small that some teachers roll supplies around on carts; difficulties updating technology infrastructure because of asbestos in the walls; safety and disability code violations that prompted a threat of closure from the fire marshal.

She chose private school.

“In the end, there are other issues that came into my decision, but had the school issue been resolved, it never would have entered my mind,” said Weinstein, a town councilor and member of Newmarket Solutions, a group focused on improving schools. “It weighs so heavily on this community that you’re constantly weighing your options and constantly questioning different school districts.”

Newmarket voters opposed a $45 million bond this year to construct a new school. In the past, they could’ve received help from the state through a school building aid program that poured millions into school repairs and construction. But facing debt from past projects, the Legislature stopped giving money to new projects in 2010, leaving communities to decide whether residents should shoulder the full cost.

State Reps. Michael Cahill, John Mullen and Rick Ladd have all filed bills for the coming Legislative session that would reinstate money for new projects. The effort to restore funding comes during what will likely be a difficult budget season. Republicans are predicting a need for cuts, and Gov. Maggie Hassan recently ordered state agencies to cut their existing budgets to avoid a deficit.

“I’ve already been told, ’You’ve got to find the money someplace,’” said Mullen, a Middleton Republican. “I’ll find the money someplace, it’s around. We have shortchanged our communities’ education.”

For decades, the state handed out building aid freely. Now, the state is on the hook for $539 million through 2040 to pay off more than 360 projects, according to a 2011 report from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. High school construction projects in Nashua, Conway, Windham and other towns benefited from the money.

State law says the state can spend $50 million of each budget on building aid, but in recent years the state has only used about $42 million of that to pay off existing debt, Ladd said. In 2011, lawmakers tightened the rules on which projects can receive aid — if and when aid for new projects is restored.

In the meantime, towns that want to build grapple with how to cover the costs. Beyond Newmarket, the high school in Milton needs updates and the town of Middleton wants to build its own elementary school rather than sending students to Farmington.

Ladd, a Republican and former teacher, wrote a bill aimed at requiring the state to spend all $50 million, meaning the $8 million that doesn’t go toward paying off old projects could be used for new ones. That could help pay for three or four new projects, Ladd predicted.

As lawmakers begin setting priorities for the next budget, Ladd will keep fighting to make building aid one of them.

“We talk about the issue that all children should have an equal opportunity for an education in New Hampshire,” Ladd said. “Well, it’s pretty hard for a school to compete if they don’t have a proper science lab.”

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