State legislators react to school-funding ruling

Republican state Rep. Jim Kofalt calls the decision in the school-funding case

Republican state Rep. Jim Kofalt calls the decision in the school-funding case "judicial activism, plain and simple." —STAFF FILE PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI

By BILL FONDA

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 11-22-2023 2:05 PM

Modified: 11-22-2023 2:27 PM


When Rockingham County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff ruled Monday in favor of the ConVal Regional School District and its co-plaintiffs that the state’s system for funding education is unconstitutional, he wrote that the current base adequacy figure of $4,100 per pupil should be at least $7,356.01, but that “the Legislature should have the final word.”

The decision had its roots in the Claremont decisions of 1993 and 1997. In the first, the state Supreme Court interpreted the clause in the state Constitution declaring that it “… shall be the duty of the legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this government, to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries and public schools” to mean the state must support all public schools and provide an education to all its citizens. In the second, the court determined the state was not doing so.

Republican state Rep. Jim Kofalt, the deputy majority leader whose district includes the ConVal town of Temple, called the original Claremont decision flawed, and that with Ruoff’s decision, “the Superior Court is doubling down on that error.”

“This is judicial activism, plain and simple,” he stated. “Left-wing judges have managed to expand the single word ‘cherish’ into a broad spending mandate. This moves us one step further away from accountability to local taxpayers, and it vastly increases the pressure for a broad-based income tax or sales tax. I look forward to seeing the Supreme Court overturn this decision.”

Democratic state Sen. Donovan Fenton, whose district includes ConVal towns Hancock and Peterborough, disagreed, stating that New Hampshire “has an obligation to fund public education and its clear we are not doing it.”

“We have massive disparities in education and how individuals are taxed across the state due to this formula,” he stated. “Democrats have been fighting for public education and its funding to help meet the needs of our students. We will review the court decision today and consider legislative action to make sure a constitutional formula is enacted. Access to a quality education is the bedrock for our children’s future. I personally wouldn’t be where I am today without the great education I got from New Hampshire’s public schools.”

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Like Kofalt, Republican state Rep. Riche Colcombe, who represents the ConVal towns of Antrim and Bennington, stated that she looks forward to the state Supreme Court overturning the decision. However, if the decision is not overturned, Colcombe plans to advocate for the state being involved in the school budgeting process and not leaving it solely with individual districts.

“If this stands, we should move to allow the state to be involved in controlling district spending while also maximizing a return on tax dollars by negotiating contracts and consolidating purchasing needs so we can position ourselves with stronger, more efficient buying power,” she stated. “Currently, the state has no control over what the schools put in their budgets or how they negotiate contracts. There is no accountability for how those numbers came to be and there is a lack of consistency in the budget process from district to district. The voters of each district decided what was important to them.”

Such a move would require districts to give up some local control, but Colcombe said that if districts are saying the state should provide more money, they should expect the state to be more involved in the budget process.

“They’re not using the most-prudent methods they could in building budgets,” she said.

Additionally, if the state’s appeal does not succeed, Colcombe stated that New Hampshire should repeal the default budget legislation in SB2 – which, in the event of voters rejecting a budget, freezes spending at the previous year’s level except for amounts which the town is legally obligated to pay or which were one-time expenses – and move all school districts to zero-based budgeting.

Republican state Sen. Ruth Ward, whose district includes Antrim, Bennington and Francestown in the ConVal district, stated that she has supported increased education funding, including the state budget that increases education funding by $169 million and 31% over the next 10 years, but is “very disappointed in this latest example of judicial overreach.”

“It would increase spending by half-a-billion dollars, forcing New Hampshire into a broad-based tax, bring back donor towns and undermine local control of our schools,” she stated. “The judge also dismissed our efforts to target education aid where it is needed more, such as for special education and communities with a higher number of low-income families. I expect this decision to be appealed the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Judges do not have authority to spend $535 million of taxpayer money.”

Ward’s Republican Senate colleague Denise Ricciardi, whose district includes the ConVal towns of Greenfield, Sharon and Temple, stated, “In my two terms in the New Hampshire Senate, I have supported large increases in education funding. The budget I supported in June increased funding for K-12 by $169 million and increased funding for communities that have extraordinary needs and a high number of students receiving free and reduced lunches. I supported this unprecedented funding increase because it is vitally important that our students receive the best possible education in order that they can succeed in their lives. Public education plays a critical role in achieving that success. But unfortunately this judicial ruling may lead to the need for income tax or a sales tax or both —- which I do not support. I will be considering both cases carefully in my official capacity, but it is too early to determine how the legislature will ultimately respond as we currently are not in session.” 

Democratic state Rep. Peter Leishman, whose district includes the ConVal towns of Peterborough and Sharon, stated that he was not surprised by the decision, as it is similar to previous rulings and the state should do more to support public education.

“The issue that is not easy to answer – where is the half-a-billion dollars (needed to increase the funding) coming from? It would also appear that based on Gov. (Chris) Sununu’s comments on the decision, the state is likely to appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court,” he stated.

Regarding a potential appeal, state Department of Justice spokesman Michael Garrity said, “We’ve received the court’s order. We are currently reviewing it, and we will be contemplating our potential next steps.”

However, Garrity said it is too soon to tell what options are being considered.

Martin applauds effort

The Mascenic Regional School District was among the co-plaintiffs in the case, and Superintendent Chris Martin applauded ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders for her efforts in leading the charge on the issue.

“None of this would have happened if it were not for Kimberly Rizzo Saunders being so persistent in getting districts involved in this issue,” Martin said.

Martin called the ruling an “enormous win,” but said the district won’t be making any immediate changes based on the new formula, noting that the state’s Legislature has to first vote to allocate the new funding. Martin said she expects the state to file an appeal, but that the acknowledgment that the current base adequacy aid doesn’t represent constitutionally adequate education is a huge step forward in the conversation of education funding.

“If nothing else, it gets people thinking about how we find education in New Hampshire,” Martin said.

Ashley Saari contributed to this story.