To The Daily Sun,
I am writing in response to Councilor Baer's letter to the editor published on July 5. She pointed to the fact that eighty-five Laconia teachers earned more than $60K in 2015 to support the proposition that Laconia is fairly and competitively compensating its teachers, and presented the same graphs that she has presented in the past to support her position that Laconia's school spending should be decreasing because student enrollment numbers are decreasing. Both her numbers and her graphs completely miss the point that I and others made to the City Council last week.
As Councilor Baer's letter correctly shows, teachers receive pay that exceeds those of many in the private sector. However, Councilor Baer neglects to take into account the fact that Laconia is competing with other school districts for good teachers. A teacher in Laconia with their Masters degree and 12 years of experience, which is a teacher that most districts would want to hire, could leave Laconia and make nearly $12K more in Gilford, over $23K more at Inter-Lakes, and nearly $31K more at Concord. Similar pay discrepancies are found throughout the middle of Laconia's pay scale for teachers with between 8 and 19 years of experience. Those at the top of Laconia's pay scale, who are those identified by Councilor Baer as making more than $60K, also earn substantially less in Laconia than they would at Inter-Lakes or Concord, although this pay discrepancy is not as large. I agree with Councilor Baer that a picture is worth a thousand words and this pay discrepancy is clear from the graph included with this letter, which compares pay for teachers with Masters degrees.
If Laconia's teacher pay remains noncompetitive, many of Laconia's good young teachers will get their experience in Laconia and then move on to more lucrative positions in other districts and, once our teachers with 15+ years of experience retire, Laconia is likely to be left with a revolving door of new teachers who we will spend money to train to the benefit of surrounding districts. We have already seen this happening. This year, Laconia lost three of its best administrators to other districts who were able to pay them substantially more money. Last year, Laconia lost one of its best math teachers at LHS, who earned over $20K more by moving to Concord, and two years ago Laconia lost its top guidance counselor for college planning to Inter-Lakes, which offered over $17K more. Both of these individuals were LHS grads and would have preferred to stay, but neither could justify staying given the massive pay discrepancy. With cuts of over $1.6 million from the schools' 2016 programs and the uncertainty of future budget cuts causing anxiety for our teachers, this trend is sure to continue.
Councilor Baer's graphs appear to suggest that Laconia's school costs should be decreasing because enrollments are decreasing. This also misses the mark. In 2015, Laconia ranked 107th out of 166 N.H. school districts in per pupil spending at $14,373. Gilford was 43rd at $18,097 and Inter-Lakes was 25th at $19,888. It is interesting to note that Franklin, which was the birthplace of Laconia's tax cap, was 166th out of 166 in per pupil spending, at a paltry $10,269 per pupil. There is abundant research to support the proposition that children from lower income families cost more to educate than those from higher income families and Laconia's demographic shift to a higher percentage of lower income families should mean that it spends more per pupil than those with a higher percentage of middle income families. However, Laconia spends far less per pupil than its more affluent neighbors in Gilford and Meredith. As we continue to spend less, middle class families looking to locate to the Lakes Region will continue to choose to buy homes in Gilford and Meredith and Laconia's enrollments will continue to decline and be made up of higher and higher percentages of children from low income families.
Finally, in her letter, Councilor Baer states, "constant attacks on the City Council for not allowing the schools to pay more is hitting below the belt". If my statement to the council were interpreted as an "attack" on the council, I sincerely apologize. As I stated, I understand that the council has very few viable options given the current structure of the tax cap. I have also applauded the council for its forward thinking in making needed infrastructure improvements in the city and for supporting the Colonial Theater renovations in order to revitalize our downtown. If there was one criticism of the council that could be taken from my remarks, it was the lack of a well defined vision for the future of the city, a plan for achieving this vision, and an apparent unwillingness to discuss changing the current structure of the tax cap to adequately fund such a plan. These discussions should take into account the needs of the aging population that Councilor Baer mentioned. However, to avoid any such discussion because of its potential impact on the city's aging population is not in the best interests of those of us who have invested in the city's long term future and will be most impacted by today's decisions when we become part of this same "aging population" in coming years.
As I stated to the council, our future can be a bright one if we proactively take steps to make it so. In the alternative, we can blindly continue down our current path and face the consequences. The choice is yours, Councilor Baer.