Capital Comments: Forums on education air local concerns

By State Senator Bob Odell

While the pace of activity picks up in Concord with floor sessions in the House and Senate and committees hearing bills in both chambers, legislators never want to forget about listening to what is going on back home.

Those with a stake in the issues before the legislature want their concerns heard before hard decisions are made in the State House. Last week was a good example of the forums created so that legislators can hear what professionals, and in some cases, what some taxpayers have on their minds.

The week started with a Monday breakfast and briefing by administrators of schools in Newport and Croydon on day-to-day issues they face. Everyone agrees that mandates from Washington are much more onerous than those from Concord. But Concord is not entirely innocent of putting tasks on local school districts without money to implement new responsibilities.

It was at the Monday meeting that I first learned about House Bill 39 which would remove such subjects as foreign languages, technology, arts and health education from the state education standards. Making those subjects optional and paid for by local communities would be shortsighted in my opinion. But there is plenty of debate ahead and my voice can wait until the bill, if it passes the House, gets to the Senate.

The value of the Newport-Croydon meeting was the insight provided by local educators on the challenges before them. Representatives Steve Cunningham and Tom Howard, both of Croydon, joined me for that meeting.

On Tuesday night, there was a public forum on education in Marlow. I counted at least 50 citizens who turned out to talk with their Representatives, Lucy Weber and Tara Sad from Walpole, and Anne Cartwright from Alstead and myself. The overriding issue in Marlow is the cost of running an elementary school of just over 30 students with state and federal mandates that may not be reasonable or affordable for a small school to manage.

Schools with small enrollments do not get added money because of their size. Communities receive their state grant for an adequate education and whatever additional money they receive under the category of fiscal disparity aid. And under the law currently in place, the state aid to Marlow will fall by over 40 percent in the next school year.

It is likely, I believe, that the school aid formula will be changed and the reduction in state aid for communities like Marlow will be eliminated or lessened. Having 50 plus constituents turn out on a cold January night demonstrated the interest of the citizens of Marlow and their deep concern about the future of the community. How to finance their local school while protecting property taxpayers from an ever increasing burden mostly tied to local education costs is the issue.

The level of education involved changed on Friday. River Valley Community College hosted local legislators for breakfast to brief us on the plans of the seven campus Community College System over the next few years.

The college leadership, of course, wants legislators who will eventually vote on a budget that will include $35-40 million in operating support for community colleges what the system’s needs are. There is also a multi-year request from the system for capital budget funds, money raised through bonding , to provide for new construction as well as renovations of buildings on community college campuses.

It was good that the breakfast was held in the Puksta Library at River Valley Community College. It is a beautiful building and a perfect setting for a meeting with legislators. But for me it served as a prime example of the value of investing in our community college system. The Puksta Library is an attractive, inviting, technologically up-to-date facility that provides a welcome place for students to study and work the magic of the internet.

The money the statewide community college system is requesting will include funds for renovations to the main building at the Claremont campus. That building was built 30 years ago and even to the casual observer the need for renovation and upgrading is very evident.

Over the last four years, enrollment is up 34 percent at our community colleges. New Hampshire students represent 95 percent of the enrollment. But, tuition costs for New Hampshire Community Colleges is much higher than other state systems, costing between $4,500 to $6,500 per year, depending on the programs of study. The national average is $2,500 per year.

The New Hampshire Community College System, including our own River Valley Community College, is vitally important to the future of the 27,000 students attending the colleges this year. The colleges are also a very significant factor to the future health of the New Hampshire economy. That benefits all of us.

Continuing on the education front, for those following the bill to help insure that Unity qualifies for state building aid for their new elementary school, the Senate Education Committee voted 5-0 to exempt the town from the current moratorium on building aid. There are many hurdles ahead but with a strong vote in the committee, the bill, SB 24, should pass the full Senate this week. It will be referred to the Senate Finance Committee which will look at the financial implications of the bill. After Finance Committee action, the SB 24 will return to the Senate floor for another vote.

Senator Odell represents Senate District 8: Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont, Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury, Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland. He is the chairman of the following committees: Ways and Means; Energy, Environment and Economic Development; and Finance. He is also on the Capital Budget Committee.

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