EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 29, 2013

There's no new school construction aid

By Doug Ireland

---- — The state’s moratoriums on school aid construction and charter schools are expected to continue.

That dampens hopes for new educational initiatives in Southern New Hampshire.

It also means local taxpayers will have to foot the entire bill if they approve school construction projects. For Salem residents, there will be no state aid available for the $16.2 million in renovation projects they approved this month for three elementary schools.

It also means after Next charter high school opens in Derry this fall, there will be no new charter schools coming to the area.

Members of the House Finance Committee decided to cut back on education programs this week. That includes money for the state’s university system, as they consider how to fund Gov. Maggie Hassan’s two-year state budget without relying on projected revenue from casino gambling. Lawmakers are considering expanded gambling legislation, but nothing has been passed.

Just after Salem received aid for the $21 million renovation of Barron, Lancaster and North Salem schools a few years ago, the state adopted its moratorium on school construction aid, Salem school Superintendent Michael Delahanty said.

So there was no hope for obtaining state aid — which could have come in handy — when residents voted earlier this month to renovate the Fisk, Soule and North Salem schools, Delahanty said.

Extending the school aid moratorium could also mean no state money for planned renovations of Woodbury School and Salem High School. Taxpayers would have to foot the entire bill.

The extended moratorium could also have an impact on communities planning school projects.

Two weeks ago, Windham voters defeated plans for a $31 million middle school. Pelham voters rejected a $1.7 million kindergarten project.

Henry LaBranche, superintendent for the two school districts, said although Windham and Pelham voters were more concerned about their taxes increasing, the school aid moratorium was probably on at least some residents’ minds.

But Pelham residents voted down the project even though $1 million in kindergarten aid was available, he said.

Although Finance Committee member Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, said yesterday he’s hopeful funding for charter schools and construction aid can be restored, it’s doubtful that will happen. But he did say some funding was expected to be reinstated for the university system.

Weyler sponsored legislation, House Bill 435, that would increase funding for school charters but it’s stranded in the House Education Committee.

Now, his goal to have the moratorium on new charter schools lifted has been shattered. He said the influx of newly elected Democrats has derailed the reforms Republicans adopted over the last few years.

”They are trying to undo most of what we have done,” said Weyler, who chaired the Finance Committee last session.

”It’s a disappointment,” he said. “Some of the things we did we were very proud of.”

When the Finance Committee met Tuesday, Democrats said there just wasn’t enough money for new projects.

”This is criminal to take away funding for charter schools,” Weyler told them .

The state Board of Education adopted its moratorium on new charter schools last fall after funding dried up.

But board Chairman Thomas Raffio said the 17 in operation, including schools in Kingston and Salem, would not be affected. Neither would Next charter school in Derry, he said.

Joe Crawford, one of two co-directors for Next, said he was relieved the Derry charter school application was approved shortly before the moratorium was adopted. Otherwise, many months of planning would have been wasted, he said.

”It was a very long and difficult process to draft the document and to begin building community partnerships,” he said. “Had this happened to us, it would have been very demoralizing and difficult.”

Crawford said despite the moratorium, he’s heard of other educators still determined to open charter schools without state funding. Next received a three-year, $577,500 grant, he said.

”To have that kind of thing stopped in its tracks must be difficult for them — I feel for them,” he said. “I don’t know how they are going to do it.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.