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Superior Court Judge Rules N.H.'s School Funding System is Unconstitutional

Conval Regional School District is at the center of New Hampshire's latest school funding debate.
John Phelan / Wikipedia Creative Commons
Conval Regional School District is at the center of New Hampshire's latest school funding debate.

A Cheshire County judge ruled Wednesday that the state’s current formula for funding public schools is unconstitutional, potentially re-opening New Hampshire's long-simmering school funding debate.

The case started this spring, when the ConVal, Mascenic, Winchester, and Monadnock School Districts sued the state, saying lawmakers were violating the New Hampshire Constitution by not funding an adequate education for students in those districts. 

In a sweeping court order nearly 100 pages long, Superior Court Judge David Ruoff agreed. He said the amount of “base adequacy aid” the state is sending to districts for each student – $3,636 – is invalid and inaccurate, but he did not order the state to pay anything yet to districts other than attorney’s fees.

One of the districts’ major complaints, which Ruoff validated, was that lawmakers’ method of calculating adequacy aid relies on the state’s minimum standards for education, rather than districts’ real costs. For instance, the current formula assumes all third through twelfth grade classes are operating at a student-teacher ratio of 30:1, when the average ratio for districts in the state is less than half that, leading to millions more in expenses than the state formula includes.

With transportation costs, the court suggests the state is intentionally shirking its responsibility to cover costs. Under the current formula, transportation is funded at $400 per student, but it costs over twice that on average in New Hampshire, and the cost is even higher for large, rural districts like ConVal and Monadnock.

Judge Ruoff wrote that the current formula was so flawed that districts should not use it as a basis to determine how much more they’re owed. Much like judges in education funding cases since the 1990’s, Ruoff did not give a dollar amount that the state should pay these districts, instead urging the legislature to figure it out “thoughtfully and enthusiastically.”

Ruoff restated the Claremont II decisions from 1998, which require that the taxes used to fund an adequate education be fair and uniform, but he stopped short of ruling whether the state’s current taxation method is unconstitutional.

Many of these issues are currently being debated by lawmakers. The state Senate is voting Thursday on a budget that boosts education funding by $100 million. But that pales in comparison to what Ruoff suggests the state might need to spend to comply with the Constitution and previous court rulings.

The office of Governor Sununu, who is named as a defendant in the case, issued the following statement on Thursday:

“For more than 20 years, New Hampshire has grappled with how best to determine education funding, which is why Governor Sununu has supported efforts to alleviate the burdens of property-poor towns by supporting targeted school building aid and the concept of stabilization grants. The State is reviewing the order, but we continue to believe these critical funding decisions are best left to local elected leaders — who represent the people of New Hampshire — not judges in a courtroom.”

Representative Mel Myler (D-Hopkinton), the chair of the House Education Committee, says current legislation begins to address the very issues raised by the ConVal lawsuit, by restoring forms of state aid that lawmakers have slashed over the last decade, including stabilization and fiscal disparity aid, and by establishing a commission to study the state’s formula for funding school districts.

“We recognize that it’s the duty of the legislature. All the court can do is say ‘fix it.’” Myler says. “From a policy standpoint I think it’s fair to say that among Democrats and Republicans, there’s a shared desire to deal with this.”

Senate minority leader Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) issued the following statement:

“While I have yet to review the ruling by the Cheshire County Superior Court, I am committed to passing Senator Birdsell’s bill to restore stabilization grants to 100%. Restoring stabilization grants is not the final solution to fix the current funding formula, but it is a starting point to alleviate some of the financial stress many schools are feeling.”

In a statement, House Majority Leader Douglas Ley (D-Jaffrey) says:

“Yesterday’s ruling reiterates the fact that New Hampshire has consistently failed to properly fund public schools, putting an even bigger spotlight on funding for education over the next biennium and beyond. The House budget proposal brings needed relief to school districts and property tax payers over the next biennium while looking towards the next decade in establishing a commission that brings all stakeholders together to finally solve New Hampshire’s education funding crisis.

Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who is also named as defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office says it is reviewing the ruling before determining next steps.

The case could end up in the state Supreme Court, where previous school funding disputes have been decided over the past two decades.

Copyright 2019 New Hampshire Public Radio

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on New Hampshire's southern tier.
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