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N.H. bill would prioritize school construction aid

CONCORD, N.H. - New Hampshire lawmakers are moving ahead with a new system for school construction aid that uses rankings to determine which projects get funding, but the House and Senate must resolve differences in their proposals.

The Senate voted without debate Wednesday to replace the House’s proposal with its own and send it back to the House.

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Senator Nancy Stiles, head of the education committee, said the passage sets the stage to negotiate a compromise. The biggest difference between the chambers is how to fund the aid, said Stiles, a Hampton Republican.

The House would cap funding at $50 million; the Senate would let the Legislature set the amount every budget cycle, she said.

“The House is pretty strong on wanting to put on a $50 million cap,’’ Stiles said.

The deadline to act on compromise legislation is June 7.

Both bills call for paying off existing aid commitments as a top priority, which means the House proposal would leave only $6.4 million for building aid the first year and $16.5 million four years later.

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Since 1955, New Hampshire has paid a share of state-approved public school construction projects without limits on who gets aid. The state’s share ranges from 30 to 60 percent of the principal depending on the type of school district and is paid in installments over the life of the bond used to pay for the project.

Under both proposals, the state would pay its share of the principal up front to reduce local borrowing costs, but applications for aid would be ranked according to criteria such as unsafe conditions, obsolete facilities, overcrowding, and maintenance efforts. The House proposes paying 100 percent up front; the Senate, half up front and half on completion.

Though Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, has long called for changes to the system so aid could be targeted to the neediest districts, neither proposal figures a town’s ability to raise money for a project into its ranking system. However, Lynch has said he supports the concept being proposed in the bills.

In an effort to give poorer communities more aid, the Senate’s proposal would increase the spread for the state’s share to between 20 and 80 percent. A community’s wealth would not be a factor in determining a project’s rank, but it would be a factor in the state aid the community received once a project made the priority list, Stiles said. She said poorer communities would get closer to 80 percent.

The Senate’s plan also allows exceptions for emergencies, should a project need to be bumped up in priority.

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