School funding inequity leaves rural schools paying more for bussing when they need more staff, resources and crisis counseling

  • A ConVal School District bus. File Photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/10/2019 2:12:22 PM

Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said when she thinks about education funding in New Hampshire she thinks of a ski slope.

“You’ve got communities who can afford to get their kids to the very top of the slope. And so they get the best downhill. And then you get a whole big group of people that are kind of in the middle and they get them halfway there. And then you have communities that are really struggling,” Saunders said.

Saunders is superintendent at SAU 1 in Peterborough that oversees the ConVal School District. In March, 26 years after the Claremont decision that said the state is constitutionally obligated to fund an adequate education, the ConVal School Board said enough is enough and filed a lawsuit against the state for underfunding education.

The state currently provides a base adequacy aid rate of $3,636.06 per student to districts throughout the state, a large shortfall from the $15,865.26 average cost to educate a student in the state in the 2017-18 school year.

“That is not to say we don’t appreciate the $3,636 cause we do, but if we’re talking about funding an adequate education – I don’t know that $3,636, and six cents, is able to get us there. All we’re asking is for people to use real and accurate information to create that funding formula,” Saunders said.

The original lawsuit filed by the ConVal School District on March 13 was soon joined by the Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester school districts.

In a recent sit-down interview with Saunders and Lisa A. Witte, SAU 93 and Monadnock Regional School District Superintendent of Schools, Witte said, “26 years ago, the original Claremont decision was made. And 26 years is a really long time to admire the problem.”

The ConVal complaint said that 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 and should actually be $18,901 per student. The school districts asked the Superior Court to set the base adequacy amount at $9,929 per student for fiscal year 2020 and $10,843.60 for 2019.

Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff said in his 98-page decision on June 5 that the school districts were right and that the state should be paying more. He said transportation costs, among other costs, are to be paid by the state per the state constitution. However, he only ordered that the state pay the school district’s legal fees – $130,000. He did not rule on what the state should be paying per student, saying it is the legislature’s job to fix the underfunding of education.

However, instead of paying the legal fees or prompting the legislature to change the funding formula, the state appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The Aug. 28 appeal questions whether the state’s funding is “unconstitutional,” if it is unconstitutional for it to not fund school expenses such as transportation and appeals Ruoff’s ruling that the state is now responsible to pay for the school districts’ attorney fees.

On Sept. 11, the New Hampshire Supreme Court accepted the state’s appeal along with ConVal’s counterappeal and said the case “appears to be eligible for mediation.” Then late last month, the State of New Hampshire passed on the Supreme Court’s offer to mediate the appeal.

“I was disappointed to find out, that basically in minutes, they rejected the idea of mediation,” Saunders said. “We don’t have any more time. … It doesn’t feel like we have any more time to let another generation of kids not have what they need.”

Witte agreed. They also agreed that rural school districts are burdened with higher transportation costs. “One of the things that is particularly pressing in this southwest area is around transportation. … It’s not a little bit of money,” Saunders said. “… ConVal has to raise $944 for every child to get to their school buildings. Monadnock has to raise $1,040 for every child to get to their school buildings.” Urban areas like Manchester pay $411 per student for transportation.

“That’s a difference of almost $600, in some instances, that’s $600 for every child that can be spent on instruction materials or on teachers. ... And we’re spending it on getting them to school in the first place. So that brings up that question of equity,” Sanders said. “There’s been some conjecture that this is about taxes … it’s not, it’s about making sure that all students have access to a high-quality learning environment and we’re able to spend dollars in an equitable way in order to educate the children of New Hampshire.”

Witte said she would use that extra money for more “wrap-around” services for students like crisis counseling. Children can’t learn if they are dealing with trauma or family issues. “Being able to provide the supports for that child and those families,” Witte said. “We pride ourselves in knowing our kids and knowing our families and what they need.”

Witte said rural school districts that serve multiple towns, like hers, struggle to get the apportionment formulas right so that the smallest towns within the district aren’t paying too high a per-student costs.

“You see districts splitting,” Witte said.

She said her school district tried but could not find a way to adjust the apportionment formula to be fair for all its towns. In the past decade, the school district has lost the towns of Surry and Sullivan to school district withdrawal. “It was because they are smaller towns so they have fewer students,” Witte said, and were paying higher per-student costs. “All of that feeds into why towns eventually leave.”

And when a town withdraws from a school district it affects not just resources and infrastructure but the school community, Witte said, “It doesn’t just change your dollars and cents and your bottom line, it changes your delivery model. It changes potentially your programs. And it changes your community, because you have students from six towns coming and there’s a lot to be said for coming together and creating a community out of smaller ones.”

The impact of the state not adequately funding education is being felt much harder in some Northern New Hampshire communities, Witte said. “You just have to look to Berlin to really get a sense of that – in a worst-case scenario cause I don’t think it gets worse than that. Where you close your only remaining elementary school and you have to retrofit your high school,” Witte said. “And that’s just out of necessity.”

Saunders concluded, “This isn’t about whether towns are wealthy or towns are poor. This is about whether they can provide an adequate education to any child, no matter where they live,” Saunders said. “If we aren’t willing to fund an adequate education then we really need to take a hard look at where we are in the larger scheme of our social responsibility and our responsibility to our country and the children that we’re raising to be the stewards of the America promise.”

ConVal’s attorney Michael J. Tierney said in an email on Wednesday that the Supreme Court is moving forward with the case since the state opted out of mediation. “The Court has ordered the transcriber to provide it with a transcript and then will set a briefing schedule,” he wrote.

Kate Spiner, director of communications for the N.H. Department of Justice, has so far declined to comment on the matter and has said that as a pending matter before the court state officials are unable to comment. Gov. Chris Sununu’s office has been unavailable to comment.

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