State lawmakers this week could change the way New Hampshire funds education.
Republican leaders are pushing for a constitutional amendment to return power to the Legislature.
But local superintendents — and even local Republican lawmakers — are opposed.
House Speaker William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, is championing — and sponsoring — a bill that calls for a constitutional amendment that would revamp the funding mechanism. The legislation will be voted on by the full House this week.
O'Brien, and Rep. D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, bill co-sponsor and House Majority Leader, said the proposal is desperately needed.
The state needs to rein in costs and improve education, they said, at a time when Democratic Gov. John Lynch's administration is overspending the budget and overestimating revenues.
"He has made choices that are not for the best of New Hampshire," O'Brien said. "We're working hard to give New Hampshire a government it can afford."
The constitutional amendment would give the Legislature complete authority over education. If approved, the bill would void the current system established by the state Supreme Court in 1997 that requires the state to provide, define and fund an adequate education for its students.
That power would shift back to the Legislature, which is where it sat before the ruling in 1997.
Some local school superintendents say the amendment would further reduce the Legislature's commitment to funding school costs, shifting expenses to taxpayers and jeopardizing the quality of education.
"I believe that what's behind the notion is to reduce the state's obligation to education," said Richard La Salle, superintendent of the Timberlane Regional School District. "They talk about it as tax reduction. It's actually a tax increase for the people of New Hampshire."
La Salle also said the proposal could lead to the Legislature changing the funding parameters each year.
"It's a lack of stability for now and forever," he said. "It would be incredibly damaging to public education."
Other school officials agreed, each offering several reasons why O'Brien's proposal would be problematic if passed.
"I honestly think the whole concept is frightening." Salem school Superintendent Michael Delahanty said.
Delahanty said this is another example of the state not wanting to fund education costs and he questioned the Legislature's ability to do what is best for New Hampshire's children.
But if the proposal lands on the ballot, Delahanty said he trusts voters will do the right thing and reject the amendment.
But O'Brien said the proposal has received a favorable response from many — but not all — lawmakers.
Reps. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, and Norm Major, R-Plaistow, agreed the constitutional amendment would help the state control its costs, while still providing a quality education.
"We have to recognize something is going wrong," Weyler said. "We can't address it by just throwing more money at the problem."
But some local lawmakers don't support the proposal, including two Derry Republicans.
"I don't like the amendment," Rep. Ken Gould said. "It's going to authorize the Legislature to reduce its participation in school funding."
Sen. Jim Rausch, who opposes constitutional amendments in general, said yesterday his constituents voiced their concerns about the proposal during a presentation O'Brien made Saturday in Derry.
"I heard very clearly that the citizens of Derry don't want to support that constitutional amendment," Rausch said. "I still think we can do it through the legislative process."
Londonderry school Superintendent Nate Greenberg and Frank Bass, superintendent of Windham and Pelham schools, said the legislation is shortsighted.
O'Brien said the amendment would eliminate the statewide education tax, but Greenberg said communities would be shouldering an increased cost burden.
"In a sense, you are creating more donor towns by downshifting costs," Greenberg said.
"Personally, I'm opposed to it," he said. "I don't think that taking the courts out of it is the best way."
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