Senate could worsen Rochester's school financial woes

ROCHESTER — Rochester School Department officials say they’re worried the Senate may kill a bill next month that could cause Rochester to lose up to $1 million in annual grant revenue it uses to help homeless, hungry and substance-using students.

Senate Bill 431 is designed to protect school districts’ ability to collect certain nonacademic student data required for a number of state and federal grants. If the bill were to be defeated due to reported concerns about student privacy, local officials say it could jeopardize Rochester’s annual $554,000 Safe Schools/Healthy Students, $553,000 21st Century Community Learning Center and $100,000 Student Assistance Program grants.

The potential for those losses comes as Rochester grapples with a $1.2 million school deficit this year as well as a proposed budget for next year that is $3.15 million over the city’s tax cap. Decreases in various revenue sources are contributing to those financial issues, and officials say SB 431′s defeat would only make the district’s problems worse.

“It would be a huge loss to the district,” said Melisa Cardin, the director of Rochester’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.

The Senate Education Committee voted 3-2 earlier this month to deem SB 431 inexpedient to legislate, citing family and student protection concerns. SB 431 is scheduled for a full Senate vote on March 1.

Members of the committee and the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jim Gray, R-Rochester, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Historically, school districts have been allowed to conduct nonacademic surveys while affording parents to ability to opt out. Recent changes in law have flipped that; now, districts can only collect data from students whose parents have provided express written consent ahead of time.

SB 431 seeks to exempt data required by local and federal grant programs from that consent requirement, doing so without affecting the notifications districts must issue to inform parents. Cardin and other administrators throughout the state say they’re concerned the opt-in-only format makes it harder for parents to respond, limiting the overall number of responses and skewing the data used to determine how much money the district receives.

“Failure to pass SB 431 could threaten years of work to establish a system of care for children with behavioral health needs in New Hampshire,” said Cardin. “Under this bill, parents are still informed when a survey is conducted in their child’s school, they are given access to survey materials, and they are allowed to opt their child out of participation either in writing or electronically.”

Rochester, Concord and Laconia are the only districts in New Hampshire that receive federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students dollars.

Cardin said the program, which is in its fifth year, provides training to help teachers recognize and address in their classrooms’ various behavioral issues that are caused by things like homelessness and food insecurity. She said Rochester is already seeing significant benefits from giving those students, who traditionally would be sent to an administrator’s office to be disciplined, more opportunities to remain in their classrooms.

Rochester has also used its Safe Schools/Healthy Students money to fund a licensed drug and alcohol counselor at Spaulding High School.

“That has been an amazing resource,” said Cardin. “We’ve been able to show through the past couple of years that drug use has been down at Spaulding and our LDAC [licensed alcohol and drug counselor] has been doing some amazing (intervention, prevention and recovery) work.”

According to the New Hampshire Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative, the defeat of SB 431 could risk over $30 million in federal funds statewide. That figure includes $8.6 million for Safe Schools/Healthy Students, $10 million for the Project AWARE program and $12 million for the FAST Forward 2020/System of Care program.

A number of North Country communities receive Project AWARE and FAST Forward 2020/System of Care grants. There are no recipients in Strafford or Rockingham counties.

Click here for the full article in Foster's Daily Democrat.