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ConVal and three other school districts ask court to order state to pay close to $3 million for transportation costs

  • ConVal High School in Peterborough would expand from a high school to a middle high school for grades 7th through 12th under a ConVal School Board proposal for district building consolidation. Staff photo by Meghan Pierce

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/13/2019 4:22:44 PM

The ConVal School District is asking a judge to reconsider his decision of last week and order the state to pay the school districts’ actual transportation costs to the tune of nearly $3 million.

On Wednesday, ConVal and three other school districts filed a motion for reconsideration of the June 5 Cheshire County Court decision that favored the school districts’ assertion that the state is underfunding education.

“The schools are happy the courts are recognizing the state is currently underfunding education,” said Michael J. Tierney, an attorney for the school districts.

But added, these school districts believe the burden on the local taxpayers must be lifted this year or next, in 2020.

“There are other areas they are underfunding. There are other areas where the state is constitutionally obligated to fund. The court did not dispute any of the facts that were submitted in the pleadings and so the court should have ordered the state to specifically not to underfund education or transportation for education,” Tierney said.

Under the current funding formula rural schools suffer the most when it comes to getting adequate state funds to cover transportation costs per student to and from school, ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester school districts are arguing in the June 12 motion for reconsideration.

The motion for reconsideration is asking the court for injunctive and declaratory relief with a court order requiring the state to provide additional transportation funding for the 2019/2020 fiscal year of $1,225,582.40 for ConVal, $350,441.36 for Winchester, $1,111,042.74 for Monadnock and $299,283.79 for Mascenic for a total of $2,986,350.29.4.

“If the State is providing only $315 per pupil to both Manchester and ConVal, then Manchester must raise via local taxation $96.32 ($411.32-$315) per pupil to transport the students to school while ConVal must raise $599.60 ($914.60-$315) per pupil just to get the students to school. This is over a 600% difference,” the motion states. “Due to the vastly different costs of transporting students in large rural districts as compared to small urban districts, the State is obligated to provide actual transportation costs, not just the average cost. … Because the State is constitutionally obligated to fund the actual transportation costs of each school district and Petitioners’ actual transportation costs are uncontroverted, the Court erred by failing to order injunctive relief compelling the State to fund the actual costs of transportation in ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock, and Winchester for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 and declaratory relief that the failure to fully fund transportation would be unconstitutional.”

The motion is also asking the court to grant the school districts previous motions:

■For a summary judgment on the basis that the state does not have a compelling interest in funding teacher benefits at the arbitrary rate of 33 percent of teacher salary.

■For a summary judgment on the basis that the state law determining the current funding formula is “facially unconstitutional.”

■To deny the state’s motion to dismiss Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and Governor Chris Sununu as defendants in the case in their individual capacities.

The state has ten days to file a response to the motion for reconsideration. There is no time period for a response from the court.

“There is no specific time period,” Tierney said. “Based on my experience in other cases it varies greatly how quickly a motion for reconsideration gets ruled on.”

While judge David R. Ruoff said in his 98-page decision on June 5 that transportation costs are to be paid by the state per the state constitution, he only ordered that the state pay the school districts legal fees and said it is the legislature’s job to fix the underfunding of education.

Ruoff’s decision ruled the state’s current law that sets the base adequacy aid for schools “unconstitutional” because it underfunds the ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester school districts.

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

The 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.

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.”

See our previous coverage:

Judge reaffirms Claremont I and II with ConVal decision

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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