Them’s Fightin’ Words
Reneger (from

A person who reneges.
backslider, apostate, deserter, renegade, turncoat, debauchee, debaucher, decadent, degenerate, deviate, libertine, perv, pervert, profligate, rake, rakehell, recidivist, regressor, relapser, rip, defaulter, defector, fallen angel, repeater, transgressor, runagate, recreant, rat, runaway, tergiversator, absconder, sellout, traitor, betrayer, quisling, Judas, double-crosser, snake, double-dealer, rebel, serpent, backstabber, renegado, back-stabber



This year began with a horrible spectacle. Many of us have seen video of screaming protesters charging through the U.S. Capitol. They entered the Senate Chambers and the offices of our Representatives where some stole papers or items. We saw the angry shouting of other individuals calling for justice against the evil officials that had committed some litany of offenses against their country.


How could this be, we asked ourselves, that Americans were so disrespectful of the institutions that secure the blessings of freedom for our country? Why this homicidal rage against individuals that were duly elected by us, the people, to represent our interests in this system - a system we like to think of as the envy of freedom-loving peoples everywhere?


Part of the answer, I’m afraid, is right under our noses. It is routine for us to ascribe the most venial and corrupt motives to elected representatives, at all levels of government. Sometimes it's done tongue in cheek (the jokes are common, even among representatives themselves) and sometimes it is truly an expression of outrage at the perceived failings of our government. I’m afraid that what we saw in Washington is an example of reaping what we have sown. One might be tempted to call it the “end result” of such rhetoric or, at least, the “extreme expression” of the dissatisfaction that is widely held - but I think it could, and may, get a lot worse before it gets better.


I reflect on this after what has become a perennial expression of outrage during a Municipal Budget Committee meeting regarding education funding. Although it is the resident property taxpayers that set the appropriations (albeit subject to State and Federal regulations), less than half of that money actually comes from our property taxes. In practice, this means that what we do to control spending may or may not have the desired impact on our tax rate, particularly if “revenue” is working against us. To put it another way, “Flat funding” appropriations may still result in a substantial tax increase if, simultaneously, money coming from other government entities drops.


The speech in the most recent meeting (and we hear it every year in similar form) suggested that the entirety of our tax rise this year comes from the State having “reneged” on their funding obligations to the tune of $800,000. The choice of “fighting words” are probably some combination of a politicized call-to-arms as well as an expression of heartfelt emotion. Will it result in some kind of a “siege” of Concord’s State buildings or a violent “insurrection?” I really doubt it. However, it does add to the anger and resentment of individuals who are truly suffering financially and now not only have a target for that anger but will come to understand that it was malintent that caused their misfortune. Remember, too, that we all will interpret these loaded phrases in our own way. The opinion is not uncommon that school money is being misappropriated or even embezzled. Folks assume that the budget is managed through slush funds and hidden accounts, all on the “backs of the property tax payer.” I doubt the speaker meant to imply this kind of criminality but it's no accident that his works are mixed and matched to serve any number of different agendas.


I’ll be clear, these wild theories about local-government corruption have no grounding in the facts. Worst still, I’m pretty sure even the direct statement about State funding is, on its face, incorrect.


There is another way of stating his assertion. In our current budget, the State of New Hampshire gave our school district an extra (roughly) $800,000. This revenue was unanticipated when we made our budget because it was unplanned even at the state level. It was clearly identified as “one time money” and was a result of the exception economy that we were experiencing prior February-March, 2020 as well as the Governor’s concern for local budgets. That money is real. We really got it and it is a large factor in the plan, stated by the School Board, to return $500,000-700,000 to the town for tax relief.


Contrast that with the shortfall. That isn’t real. It is on paper. The School District anticipates lower revenue numbers next year and are factoring that into their estimates. Are they wrong? We don’t know that yet. Certainly, we shouldn’t be counting on another one-time infusion of money, if for no other reason that we know the State isn’t going to have as much money to hand out as it did last year.


You see, the State spends all the money it has and it spends it on what it is obligated to spend it on. There seems to be this conception that somehow the State is taking money appropriated for education spending and using it to finance gubernatorial balls, fancy dinners, and junkets to Las Vegas. This isn’t true. The money the State collects, it spends. But it can’t spend more. So if State income is down (because so many businesses are losing money), that means that State spending will be down. If the taxpayers of this State unexpectedly flood the State coffers with money, we might see an extra $800,000 available to the Town for tax relief. But this idea that the State sits upon mountains of gold while refusing to pay its bills is a wild exaggeration of the politics - the politics of spending prioritization that is part of what every governmental entity must face.


There are also other reasons why our projection of revenue is down. Critically, our student population is trending down, and that means less revenues. It means less revenue in “tuition” as, when fewer students are sent by other schools, they have less obligation to fund the Pembroke Academy costs. It also means less money from the State as most of the State money is tied to the students themselves. Fewer students means less State money - full stop. It is (either understandably or maddeningly incomprehensibly, depending) unfortunately the case that a falling student population does not equal falling costs. However, if students are not going to our schools, the State is not going to pay us to teach them.


Yet another reason for the reduced revenue is that we just decided we wanted to lower revenue. This is purely a spreadsheet exercise whereby we take our best-guess as the revenue numbers and then “conservatively” multiply it by 95% (or some number), to prevent an unexpected tax increase due to revenue shortfall. Most would agree that it is sensible but, in practice, it means we always go to town meeting with a higher projected tax increase than what comes out at the other end, when we actually get our tax bill.


So, absolutely, we all be much happier that $800,000 of State money showed up again next year. We might be even more happy if $3 million showed up unexpectedly. It might even happen - there is no way to know for sure. If it doesn’t, is that “reneging?” I don’t know if those using that phrase believe their own polemic and, I’ll acknowledge, it is a colorful way of describing one interpretation of the politics of public funding. As I said, though, I think it irresponsibly creates a perception of malfeasance (on somebody’s part) that, increasingly, degrades the quality of public discourse.


The tax impact spreadsheet that we use to discuss tax-rate setting for town meeting shows six years of “adequate education” grants. Over those six years, the figure has gone up and down, but it lower for “2021/2022” than it is for “2015/2016.” That tells a story of a persistent chipping away of State aide and a “downshifting” of tax burden from, well, whoever it is that pays State taxes to us, the poor, beleaguered property taxpayer. That, in turn, creates a perception that the State is capriciously underfunding promised grants to improve someone’s balance sheet at the expense of the citizenry. But is that accurate?


The fact is, the “adequate education” grant is but one of the State funding sources for the local school district, albeit the key one. This amount is determined by a formula set into law - the amount that the State pays per each individual student towards their education. That amount depends on other factors. For example, a student who is deficient in math will receive more State money than a student who excels at math. Bottom line, though, is if our “adequate education” grant has gone down while the formula remains the same (and this is absolutely true in this six year time frame), the reason is a drop in the student population. Either a drop in absolute numbers (which has occurred, we’re down 100s of students) or in the needs of those students (few students having trouble in math). Simply said, the State didn’t cut the money because they wanted to keep it for themselves - they cut our money because we no longer are doing the work we did back in 2015.


There are three other major areas of State funding, and they all work similarly. There are formulas that determine how the money gets distributed and, if we’re seeing less money year-over-year, it is because we no longer qualify for that money. Catastrophic Aid and Building Aid are reimbursements for expenses that already occurred. The one exception is the Stabilization Grant which actually exists to counter this relationship between students and funding.


Catastrophic Aid is the category that funds special education. As implied by the title, however, the funding is provided only for cases with very large costs. Big jumps routinely happen, both as students move into or out of the districts as well as the transition between the categories of catastrophic versus “routine,” will shift reimbursement in an unexpected way. Once again, this leads to the perception that we are at the mercy of malicious actors at the State level. Instead, we are victimized by spiraling special education costs, across the State and across the Nation, without a corresponding explosion in available revenues to cover it.


The last category is its own topic, but I’ll try to explain briefly here. The Stabilization money was conceived as a way to balance out the last major change in Adequate Education funding calculation, now going on ten years old. The new formulas, intended to be an improvement, particularly hit towns (like ours) that were seeing a dramatic reduction in students. The combination of the loss of students and unfavorable property tax base (again, a problem with living in a “bedroom community”) necessitated giving a flat-out grant, unrelated to student needs, to the negatively-impacted towns in order to secure enough support in the Legislature. It was probably intended to be temporary but, as is always the case with public funding, there is never going to be a good time for Pembroke to give up that extra money. This has been part of the revenue issue in this six year period as a law was put in place to gradually ramp down the stabilization money for the subset of towns that get them and return to relying entirely on student-need based funding. The process began, then was frozen, and then was reversed. This creates another (albeit minor) roller coaster ride of revenue uncertainty that might be perceived as malice. For the most part, the town has actually done fairly well (relative to other NH communities without a loss of students) when looking at the big picture, so I would resist the urge to over-focus on this one factor.


I’ve put this all down because I am frustrated by the use of innuendo, exaggeration, and deflection and the fact that this leaves “the audience” with significant misconceptions about some of the simple, and readily verifiable, facts about State funding of education. I am also particularly worried about how these passion-fueled political disagreements have been flooding into other aspects of our lives, to the determination of civil society and government both. I’m not really trying to touch off a debate about choices that need to be made when it comes to education. Like everyone else, I believe that this all could be done better and, like almost everyone else, I have a mix of thoughts, ideas, and partial solutions. While I appreciate the desire of those who want to correct me where my perceptions are wrong, I don’t think the already-heated forum of Town and School meeting is the best venue for that fight.


Discussion is great - it is the foundation that makes Democracy possible. Passioned argument is inevitable. What I beg my neighbors to consider, however, is that we must keep our arguments grounded in facts and keep our tone as dispassionate as possible. More may depend on it than we know.


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