Craig, Donchess join colleagues in voicing concerns with school voucher bill to Senate

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Paul Feely, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
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May 4—Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess joined 11 of their counterparts across New Hampshire in signing on to a letter voicing concerns over a controversial school voucher bill and the impact it could have on local school districts.

The letter, sent Tuesday to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Gary Daniels, asks the Senate to request a financial analysis be prepared for SB 130 similar to one performed three years ago on SB 193 to assess what impact the bill may have had on taxpayers if passed.

"After review, Rep. (Neal) Kurk and a majority of the NH House, ultimately decided that the potential risk to property taxpayers was too great to move forward," the mayors wrote in their letter.

The Republican-led state Senate gave preliminary approval last month to SB 130, which supporters claim would benefit children who have struggled during the pandemic. Opponents claim the school voucher bill would drain money from public schools.

The Senate voted 14-10 along party lines in favor of the bill, then tabled it.

SB 130 establishes an "Education Savings Account Program," allowing families to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private school, homeschool or other private educational programs. Families taking part in the program would receive an estimated average $4,500 a year.

The bill faced fierce pushback during public testimony earlier this year, with 3,200 people registering their opposition out of 3,700 who registered an opinion.

The final version of the bill offers Education Savings Accounts to students whose families make under 300 percent of the federal poverty level — $77,000 for a family of four — and who isn't enrolled in a public school.

In their letter, the 13 mayors cite a recent report from Reaching Higher NH which indicates SB 130 would cost the state around $70 million in new education spending over the next three years, with no suggested revenue stream determined by the legislature.

"As you well know any shortfall in the education trust funds means a draw on tax dollars from the general fund," the letter reads. "In addition, with just a 3% take up rate among public school families in our school districts, we collectively could be facing millions of dollars of new local property taxes, especially as adequate education grants will be phased out."

The state Department of Education, state officials, and private nonprofits have all produced different analyses on whether the program will cost or save taxpayers money each year.

A study by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy estimates public school enrollment would decrease by less than 1% in the first year of the program and 2% in the second year, and potentially save taxpayers $6.65 million over that time frame.

In addition to Craig and Donchess, the letter is signed by Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, Claremont's Charlene Lovett, Concord's Jim Bouley, Dover's Bob Carrier, interim Franklin Mayor Olivia Zink, Keene Mayor George Hansel, Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer, Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara, Portsmouth Mayor Rick Becksted, Rochester Mayor Caroline McCarley and Somersworth's Dana Hilliard.