February 4, 2010

Derry may sue state over school funding lapse

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Filing a lawsuit against the state may be the only way out to avoid the looming $7.5 million education funding gap, State Rep. Frank Sapareto said yesterday.
     “I presented a letter to both the school board and the town, outlining the situation – it's not like this came out of thin air. I told them five years ago, this was going to happen,” said Sapareto. “But really, it's the town that needs to take the lead. Frankly, I don't have a lot of faith in our school board at this point.”
     During Saturday's Deliberative Session, the School Board determined that it would set aside $50,000 toward legal expenses and prepare to go after the state in court over the $7.5 million loss anticipated when the current education funding formula lapses in 2011.
     Derry will be among 82 communities losing a combined $28 million in school aid, money that will shift to the largest two districts, Manchester and Nashua. Derry stands to lose the most, and it has mobilized the town's entire legislative delegation.
     Sapareto was critical yesterday of School Board chair Brenda Willis, who he said “is betting everything on Gov. Lynch's word” that he will not let Derry suffer.
     “Why he would sacrifice Manchester and Nashua for Derry goes against everything I know about the way politics works in this state,” said Sapareto.
     There is something very wrong with a funding equation that leaves Derry – the third-largest district in the state – out in the cold, said State Sen. Robert Letourneau.
      Letourneau will try to get some support for his proposed legislation, SB462, which would extend the provisions of the state's current funding grant through 2015 – allowing time for Derry and other towns affected to recover from the recession and come up with a better funding plan.
     Towns currently in line to lose their funding next year would retain what they have, with no increases, for four more years. It's a longshot, but Letourneau said it would save the state $140 million over the next two years.
     “No one is opposed to giving money to school aid, but the current formula needs to be reworked so that it's fair,” Letourneau said.
     During Tuesday's council meeting, Councilor Kevin Coyle urged his fellow councilors to heed Sapareto's call to action and join with the school board in taking the state to court.
     “The Town Council needs to send a strong message, that the way the state is currently funding education is unfair to Derry,” Coyle said.
     The council agreed to put the matter on the March 2 agenda for a public hearing.
      In the meantime Letourneau is holding out hope that his bill, scheduled for a hearing today, might help avoid the legal route.
      “To be honest, I am staring at a stone wall. It will be tough to convince those who put the bill in place. But conditions have changed completely since they passed that bill. We weren't looking at an economic downturn. We weren't looking at a deficit. We were looking at spending more on education, which is a priority in our state budget.” Letourneau said.
     “I don't want to make this a food fight between towns, but it has to be fair. When the No. 1 and 2
districts in the state get $26 million and No. 3 loses $7.5 million, something is wrong. The governor has promised to work with us on this. I would like to think we could do this without going to court; maybe that's wishful thinking. But it may be the only thing that wakes them up,” Letourneau said.
     “Otherwise, the loss of $7.5 million would be devastating to Derry and would result in one of two things: Either we close down an entire school and all the teachers are let go and the building gets closed down, or the tax rate goes up $3.80 per thousand, which, for someone who owns a $200,000 home, we're talking $1,500 to $2,000 more per year,” Letourneau said. “Both of those options are unacceptable.”

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