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Bipartisan effort under way for education funding constitutional amendment

A Republican senator and a Democratic representative have filed draft constitutional amendments to change the way the state funds education in needy school districts, but they hope to get the support of Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan before they release too many details.

“There’s no sense in putting it forward if the governor can’t get on board with it,” said Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican who recently sponsored one amendment.

Amendments to the New Hampshire Constitution require approval by three-fifths majorities in both chambers and then two-thirds of voters at the ballot box. The governor doesn’t have veto power over them, but her support could carry weight.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that anything would pass the House and Senate with a supermajority, and highly unlikely anything would pass the voters, if it doesn’t have the support of the governor-elect,” said Rep. Gary Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat who sponsored an amendment in the House.

For her part, Hassan hasn’t ruled much out.

“She is always open to discussing constructive ideas for improving education with legislators, but the governor-elect believes the state has a responsibility for education, and she will not support any amendment that lets the Legislature walk away from that,” her spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said in an email.

The House has tried about 80 times to pass a school funding amendment since the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s Claremont decision in the 1990s required the state to finance an adequate education for children in all school districts.

Critics say the decision shifted the authority over schools to the courts and put the burden of funding exclusively on the state, when some communities are capable of paying for it themselves.

Since then, critics say, the state has insufficiently funded education. The current formula awards each district, regardless of its tax base, roughly $3,400 per student.

Under the current system, some districts less able to raise revenue receive money on top of the $3,400 per pupil, based on factors such as the number of students on subsidized lunch or with special needs. However, in a world of finite resources, to direct funds away from wealthier communities toward needier ones requires a constitutional amendment.

“We have a limited amount of money that’s available,” Richardson said. “The question is, what’s the best way to disperse that money?”

In June, state lawmakers came as close as they ever have to passing a constitutional amendment changing the way New Hampshire schools are funded. It passed in the Senate but failed in the House after some Republicans felt it didn’t shift enough authority over education away from the courts and some Democrats felt it left too much authority over education with legislators who might, in the future, inadequately fund education.

Citing their ongoing attempts to gather bipartisan support for an amendment, Richardson and Stiles declined to provide the texts of their proposed amendments, which will not be made public until after the legislative session begins in January.

Richardson did, however, provide some details.

He said his proposed amendment would allow the Legislature to target money to school districts with lower assessed valuations but not change the state’s responsibility to fund the total cost of education. It would also preserve the current role of the judiciary.

“It doesn’t in any way reduce the authority of the Supreme Court to oversee the funding of education,” Richardson said.

Stiles and Richardson said they hope to meet with Hassan during her transition to build support for the legislation.

“The language is still up for discussion until after we have the conversation with the governor and make sure both the Democrats and the Republicans can come together,” Stiles said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors )

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