Judge reaffirms Claremont I and II with ConVal decision

  • ConVal High School Benji Rosen

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/10/2019 7:40:25 PM

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

“It reaffirms Claremont I and II,” Peterborough Selectwoman Karen Hatcher said Monday. “The judge details, in 98 pages, exactly the same message to the legislature that Claremont I and II did, which is it’s the state’s responsibility to give an adequate education to all children in the state, not just those who have high property values.”

Hatcher represents the Select Board on an advisory committee to the ConVal School Board and is also a member of New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, a statewide board focused on fixing the school funding problem.

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 his 98-page decision Wednesday.

“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.”

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.’

ConVal superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said Friday the case could go up to the supreme court if the state appeals the decision.

But ultimately, Ruoff said in his decision that it is in the hands of the legislature to solve the problem.

“I think that the legislature knows there is an educational funding crisis in the state of New Hampshire and I think they are working really hard to come up with solutions,” Saunders said. “I think that they need to make some hard decisions about where they want to go and solve the educational funding crisis once and for all.”

State senator Jeanne Dietsch (D-Peterborough) said Ruoff added the caveat to his decision that if the legislature does not act the court could.

“He added ‘for the time being’ in essence it was a threat that if the legislature did not act the court was going to act, which was what I found most interesting,” Dietsch said. “After 25 years of rulings against the legislature, it comes down to ‘do it or the court is willing to take action.’ Obviously, we will have to act and we will have to find sources of funding or else. … There are multiple ways to address this and I am sure we will be working with the governor to come up with a message we can all agree.”

Dietsch said the legislature cannot move forward on a solution without support from the governor.

“I’m sure everybody’s going to be working on it this summer,” Dietsch said.

House Majority Leader Douglas Ley (D-Jaffrey) said Monday, “I can’t say I’m terribly surprised we’ve certainly been aware of the issues for some time.”

Ley said the House has been attempting to solve the issue with three plans for a short, intermediate and long term solution.

The short term is the return of the stabilization grants, which have been supported by the House, Senate and governor, he said.

The intermediate solution was to find more immediate funding for education by expanding the interest in dividends tax to capital gains, which the Senate narrowed to only about 4,500 taxpayers when it worked on the budget, ey said, diminishing its impact.

The long term solution is the widely supported commission. The current budget includes this solution and funding for it so that a study of the issues with a professional staff can take place.

“It’s clear that the current formula is not a workable formula,” Ley said. “I’m cautiously optimistic. I think the problem has been simmering for a long time.”

Hatcher said it is time for the state to have a serious discussion about revenue and how to pay for education.

“This has to be addressed now. There is no walking away from this,” Hatcher said. “How do you not take care of this? How do you expect towns to thrive when they are being choked out by education funding, and the state is sitting on money saying ‘times are good.’”

When the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript reached out to Governor Chris Sununu Monday his office responded with this statement:

“For more than 20 years, New Hampshire has grappled with how best to determine education funding, which is why Governor Sununu has supported efforts to alleviate the burdens of property-poor towns by supporting targeted school building aid and the concept of stabilization grants. The State is reviewing the order, but we continue to believe these critical funding decisions are best left to local elected leaders, who represent the people of New Hampshire, not judges in a courtroom. The state is reviewing all options regarding the ruling and will consult with the Attorney General’s office on next steps.”


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