Judge sides with ConVal and other Monadnock Region school districts in fight for adequate school funding

  • ConVal High School in Peterborough, N.H. (Monadnock Ledger-Transcript photograph) Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/6/2019 5:58:34 PM

A Cheshire County Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of ConVal’s lawsuit asserting the state is underfunding education in area schools and placing a burden on district property taxpayers.

The state’s current law that sets the base adequacy aid for schools has been ruled “unconstitutional” because it underfunds the ConVal School District and three other school districts that petitioned the court for relief, judge David R. Ruoff said in a 98 page decision Wednesday.

“The Court does not take this decision lightly and recognizes its significant implications,” Ruoff wrote.

The lawsuit was filed by the ConVal School District on March 13, argued that the state does not fund a constitutionally adequate education. The Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester school districts later joined in the legal fight. The complaint said using the state’s own formula and the state’s own data, the state’s base adequacy funding falls far short of constitutionally sufficient funding for the children of the ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester school districts as well as throughout New Hampshire.

ConVal and the other school districts claimed in the petition that the actual cost of an education, based on Department of Education data, is about $18,901 per student. The complaint asked the court to set the base adequacy amount at $9,929 per student for fiscal year 2020 and $10,843.60 for 2019.

The state currently sets the base adequacy aid award for all schools at $3,562.71 per student. The state’s number is based on a formula determined by a legislative committee, 11 years ago, in 2008.

Ruoff stopped short of saying what the base adequacy amount should be in his decision but ruled that the state must pay the plaintiff’s attorneys fees because the school districts acted in the public good.

“In bringing suit, the plaintiffs had “contributed to the vindication of important constitutional rights,” he wrote, and in doing so “they have conferred a significant benefit upon the general public, and it is thus the general public that would have had to pay the fees incurred if the general public had brought the suit.”

Ultimately, the legislature must solve this problem, he wrote.“As every court decision on the matter has recognized, school funding is no small task, and the burden on the Legislature is great. Yet, as every court decision has similarly recognized, the Legislature is the proper governmental body to complete it. As has been the result in the past, the Court expects the Legislature to respond thoughtfully and enthusiastically to funding public education according to its constitutional obligation.”

In response to Ruoff’s decision, ConVal School issued a statement Wednesday night:

“The Court’s findings were consistent with our assertion that the present levels of funding for public education in the State of New Hampshire are unconstitutional.

“The Court specifically held the State’s current per-pupil funding levels are ‘unconstitutional as applied to the Petitioning school districts.’

“In particular, the Court held that the State was unconstitutionally failing to fully fund transportation costs for all students, unconstitutionally failing to fully fund facilities costs and unconstitutionally failing to fund the costs of teachers at proper teacher-student ratios.

“Additionally, the Court awarded attorneys’ fees. The Court also indicated that any formula design that forced communities to raise dollars to subsidize the State’s obligations would be ‘ripe for adjudication.’

“The Court also found that the funding formula was ‘not only unsupported by the legislative record but [is] clearly or demonstratively inadequate according to the Legislature’s own definition of an adequate education.’

Thursday House Majority Leader Douglas Ley (D-Jaffrey) said in a statement, “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. As we approach the final stages of the budget process, House Democrats are committed to bring real relief to property tax payers while ensuring every Granite State student has access to quality education.”

See our previous coverage:

26 years after Claremont, ConVal sues for adequate funding

State requests that documents in ConVal lawsuit be stricken

Judge denies immediate relief in ConVal lawsuit, district can seek relief until June 30


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