Despite declining enrollment, school building aid demand grows

Jan. 24—CONCORD — Despite declining public school enrollments, a bipartisan group of lawmakers offered their own menu of bills Tuesday to increase state building aid for local school construction projects.

While the state sets aside up to $50 million a year in grants to renovate or replace schools, nearly half of the money goes to pay off long-term debt incurred from past projects.

In response to the last recession in 2009, the Legislature for a decade suspended this program which had paid 30-to-60% of a district's project costs.

The reimbursement varies in how much property wealth is in the school district, with Allenstown, Berlin and Franklin qualifying for a 60% grant, while Bedford, Exeter and Hollis would receive 30% support.

Once the state reinstated the program in 2019, a backlog of projects quickly emerged.

Last November, the state Board of Education ranked the 17 school districts that applied for support.

The available $49 million for the next two years is only enough to fully finance the top three projects in Rochester, Colebrook and a school consolidation plan in Troy, Swanzey and Gilsum.

House Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, proposed (HB 546) to increase new project spending to $50 million a year.

Since the beginning of the building aid moratorium, public school enrollment has fallen from 210,000 in 2008 to about 162,000 this year but Ladd said there are still unmet needs.

"The decline is not true to every community in the state; some school districts are growing in demographics," Ladd told the House Finance Committee.

"We also know there's a correlation between upgraded school buildings and academic achievement."

Half of schools are over 60 years old

Ladd said 50% of all public school buildings are over 60 years old and seven of them have not had a major renovation in half a century.

Since the moratorium, six projects received grants, including one in Ladd's hometown after the local fire marshal condemned a building used to teach special education students.

"We are in a world of hurt in terms of school buildings. I am asking the Finance Committee to figure out the best way to address that," Ladd said.

The alternative plan (HB 541) from former House Finance Committee Chairman Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, would commit $100 million in each of the next two years only to erase the backlog.

"There is a (budget) surplus and I think this would be a very good way to help our communities with one-time money," Wallner said.

The $176 million replacement of the aging Rundlett Middle School in Wallner's home city finished fourth in the state's ranking.

"We were extremely disappointed," said Concord Superintendent of Schools Kathleen Murphy.

School Building Aid pays 80% of the state grant prior to construction with the other 20% upon completion of the work.

Concord Business Administrator Jack Dunn said spacing out state support over five years even with the existing program would let many other districts receive some support.

The long-term debt the state owes totals $136 million with payments that run out to 2041.

Caitlin Davis, director of education analytics and resources with the Department of Education, said bond experts informed the state it is unable to pay that debt off earlier than scheduled.

State Rep. Michael Cahill, D-Newmarket, proposed (HB 332) increasing building aid grants to $60 million a year with $5 million annually to give support to school districts such as his community that performed school construction work during the state moratorium.

"I am looking for a commitment to fund it year after year so we don't have this long list of communities left to their own devices," Cahill said.

Rep. Dan McGuire, R-Epsom, said school building needs should be part of the annual education aid grant all districts receive rather than a standalone program.

The current building grants encourage public school advocates to seek even more expensive renovation projects, he said.

"It should not be based on, 'if I spend more, I get more,'" McGuire said.

Cahill resisted that notion.

"We are very property tax sensitive. To say the Building Aid program is an incentive (to spend), it's not true, that's false," Cahill added.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, said he urged Gov. Chris Sununu to support using part of the budget surplus to create a one-time incentive for school districts to reduce their annual spending on physical plants by consolidating school buildings.