State appeals ConVal lawsuit decision on adequate education

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

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/4/2019 5:36:03 PM

The state is appealing the ConVal decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court in Concord.

In the appeal dated Aug. 28, the state questions whether its funding is “unconstitutional” when the state law is applied to the ConVal School District and the other school districts named in the original lawsuit. The state is also questioning if it is unconstitutional for it to not fund school expenses such as transportation. And the state is appealing the superior court’s decision that the state is now responsible to pay for the school districts’ attorney fees, which is about $130,000.

The original lawsuit 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.

Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff released his decision in June, in which he sided with ConVal and the other school districts. The state’s current law that sets the base adequacy aid for schools is “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 on June 5.

Ruoff said in his decision that transportation costs, among other costs, are to be paid by the state per the state constitution.

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 a series of court decisions stemming from lawsuits brought against the state by Claremont in the 1980s and 90s that went all the way up to the N.H. Supreme Court, it was decided that the state is constitutionally obligated to fund an adequate education.

ConVal attorney Michael Tierney said Wednesday that the school districts now have 10 days to raise any issues by filing a motion. The Supreme Court will set a briefing deadline for the state and school districts, which could take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks after a notice of appeal is filed, he said.

A call to the lawyer at the  N.H. Attorney General’s office who is representing the state in the case was directed to Kate Spiner, director of communications for the N.H. Department of Justice, who said the state is not commenting on the appeal at this time.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Thursday, Sept. 5, at 11 a.m.


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