Monadnock Regional School District joins ConVal’s school funding lawsuit

  • Monadnock Regional Middle High School Courtesy Photo

  • ConVal High School. (Benji Rosen/ Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Benji Rosen

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/20/2019 2:01:25 PM

Another school district has joined the ConVal School District’s lawsuit against the state for failing to adequately fund public education.

The Monadnock Regional School District announced Tuesday night that the district’s School Board has unanimously voted to join ConVal’s lawsuit.

“I’m happy that they are joining, I think it indicates the gravity of the situation regarding the amount of funding the state presently provides,” ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Saunders said Wednesday.

Saunders said the Monadnock Regional School District was one of many school districts to reach out to ConVal after the lawsuit was filed.

Conversations regarding Monadnock joining in have all happened within the past 72 hours Saunders said.

“It was not a deciding factor,” Saunders said. “ConVal was prepared to go in alone if necessary.”

The ConVal School District announced on March 13 that a complaint and a motion for preliminary injunction had been filed with the Cheshire Superior Court. Court documents filed with the court argue that the state does not fund a constitutionally adequate education.

The state currently contributes $3,636.06 as a base adequacy rate per student, but ConVal has argued that the state does not accurately account transportation, facilities, maintenance and other costs.

ConVal has stated in court documents that the base adequacy figure should be $10,843.60 per student.

“I think what’s important is we have seen some action in Concord this year, but it hasn’t been around base adequacy,” ConVal School Board vice chair Rich Cahoon of Antrim said Wednesday. “It’s the one unchangeable number school districts can count on. The base adequacy number needs to rise.”

In a press release Tuesday night, Monadnock Superintendent Lisa A. Witte said the district has joined the suit because it’s time that the state “fulfill its promise to our children” and bring relief to the taxpayers in the district.

“Current proposed legislation and the Governor’s proposed budget for the next biennium do little to provide permanent, guaranteed adequacy,” Witte said, in the release. “While some communities may see temporary relief, there remains no solution to a longstanding, ongoing problem.”

Witte, in an interview Wednesday afternoon, said that Monadnock shares many similarities to ConVal – including being a regional district, having a high free and reduced lunch population, and having varying property values and student populations throughout the towns in the district – and that the district’s school board had long been having conversations about decreased adequacy aid and downshifted costs.

“It’s time to take some action to hold New Hampshire accountable for providing an adequate education – to provide the funding for it,” Witte said. “We’ve done the waiting and seeing for legislative action.”

Witte said the district’s attorney was at the school board meeting on Tuesday, and that conversations are currently taking place regarding what level of involvement Monadnock will have with the lawsuit.

“We are feeling the pressure of declining adequacy and funding and are trying to provide what’s best for our students,” Witte said.

The Monadnock Regional School District covers to towns of Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy.

Saunders said she plans to talk with  Witte, or to have Witte talk with ConVal’s legal team within the next day to see what the partnership will entail.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Frank Edelblut, the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education, said that elected officials have to start having “meaningful conversations” so the issue can be resolved. 

“It is our hope that elected officials in the Legislature are able to have meaningful conversations between themselves, local school boards, and the general public, concerning the amount and source of New Hampshire’s education funds,” said Edelblut, a former state representative from 2014 to 2016. “The educational outcomes our children attain – which are ranked some of the highest in the nation when compared to other states – should also be a part of these discussions in order to ensure bright futures for our children.”

The wrong time for a lawsuit?

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky said Tuesday morning that he was both surprised and disappointed when he heard about ConVal’s lawsuit.

“As far as I can tell, ConVal and its lawyers just went off and did this on their own,” Volinsky said. “It’s not to say the legal concepts are wrong … a number of us have been working with the legislature and this may undermine that.”

Volinsky was one of the lead attorneys in a lawsuit during the 1990s where the Claremont School District sued the state over its lack of education funding. The state’s Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the state had an obligation to provide a constitutionally adequate education.

Now, Volinsky is a part of a group known as the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, which has been educating the public on school funding issues in the state and working towards legislative solutions to the funding issue.

“The filing of this lawsuit might not impact it one way or another,” said John Tobin, another attorney from the Claremont lawsuit and member of the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project. “Those of us who have been working on this for a while decided to put aside a lawsuit for now … the stakes are high. When the courts rule on this it will affect all the schools and taxpayers.”

Tobin and Volinsky said there are three things that they are advocating for through the legislature that could bring positive change: return stabilization grants – which were created to help offset the burden on property-poor communities – to their original funding numbers, creating a short-term change to the state’s funding formula to create some immediate relief, and to create an independent study commission to create a permanent solution.

“If the legislature fails to act then I think every district in the state should get behind the case,” Tobin said. “When you take on a case like this of such magnitude and importance, it makes sense to make it a group project and to think carefully.”

Tobin said the ConVal/Monadnock lawsuit could become the next “Claremont Decision.”

“I think it is trying to be that. I think it has the potential to be that. I had written an article a year ago saying it was needed,” he said.

New Hampshire School Administrative Association Executive Director Carl Ladd also questions the timing of the lawsuit, given the work being done at the state level.

“For the first time in many years, the Legislature is taking a substantive and measured look at public school funding,” Ladd said in a statement last week. “We hope the filing of this lawsuit does not detract from the Legislature’s current responsibilities and efforts, or serve to convince some to simply wait and see what the courts decide.”

Saunders said she feels the currently proposed legislation will help provide temporary relief but it doesn’t solve the long-term problem.

“I understand what people are saying, but I don’t’ know when the right time is. Do we wait another year? Two years? Five?” Saunders said. “I think the state needs to ensure that another generation of children is not put at risk. ConVal believes this can be accomplished by increasing the base adequacy.”

Nicholas Handy can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or nhandy@ledgertranscript.com.


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