Supreme Court wants clarification in school funding lawsuit

  • ConVal High School. (Benji Rosen/ Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Benji Rosen

Monitor staff
Published: 3/23/2021 6:50:35 PM

The New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the state to dismiss the “ConVal” school funding lawsuit, but did not make a ruling on the case itself, instead opting to send it back to Superior Court.

Court justices issued a 14-page opinion Tuesday morning, which directed the trial court to clarify factual disputes and determine how much funding the state is constitutionally mandated to provide.

“We agree that resolving this fact-driven dispute is a prerequisite for determining whether the amount of funding set forth in RSA 198:40-a, II (a) is sufficient to deliver the opportunity for an adequate education,” the opinion reads. “The trial judge and reviewing court have the particular facts and circumstances of the case needed to determine whether the statute has been, or is likely to be, applied in an unconstitutional manner.”

The case, Contoocook Valley School District v. the State of New Hampshire, is the latest challenge in a decades-long debate over how to fund public schools in the Granite State. It centers on the issue of whether the current funding is enough for an “adequate education” – something the state is required to provide, according to landmark court rulings in the 1990s.

Contoocook Valley, Monadnock, Mascenic and Winchester school districts sued the state in March 2019, saying the current funding amount of $3,636 per student isn’t enough, and argued that the funding formula is unconstitutional because it doesn’t take into account the actual costs of transportation, teachers or facilities.

Twenty-six other school districts have since signed onto a legal brief against the state’s position, including the Concord, Merrimack Valley and Hopkinton school districts.

Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff ruled in favor of the school districts in June 2019, but did not uphold their request to nearly triple funding per student to $9,929. Both parties, dissatisfied with the outcome, then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in September 2020.

In addition to denying the state’s attempt to dismiss the case Tuesday, the N.H. Supreme Court also reversed Ruoff’s order that the current funding method is unconstitutional as applied to the schools. The court said the judge was wrong to use information that came from legislative history and analysis in arriving at that decision.

The court also took note of the state’s argument that the source of information the school districts used in the case didn’t distinguish between costs necessary to deliver an adequate education and costs that fall outside of that.

“Although determining the components of an adequate education and their costs presents a mixed question of law and fact, as the parties’ briefs make clear, the underlying facts are vigorously disputed,” the court wrote.

Now, Ruoff and the reviewing court will have to decide exactly which funding costs the state is constitutionally mandated to provide, and whether state Dept. of Education data is the right source of information on which to base the decision.

The superintendents of the ConVal, Monadnock, Mascenic and Winchester school districts, in a joint statement, said they are “heartened” by the ruling.

“Education costs $18,000 per student on average. No one could reasonably argue that $3,636 per student will provide an adequate education,” they said.

“The Legislature, though under court order to repair its funding formula, has not done so,” they added. “This has shifted responsibility for education funding to the communities, whose residents have had to decide between education funding and rising property taxes. Inequities in taxation and funding now stretch across the state.”

Last year, a commission created by the Legislature concluded that the state should replace its current formula with one based on student outcomes such as assessment scores and graduation rates.

“Legislative efforts to improve public education should be measured by meaningful improvements in student equity and the taxpayer equity that follows it,” Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat and member of the commission said Tuesday. “The clock has started for the state to replace the antiquated one-size-fits-all funding model and make sure every school district has access to the financial resources they need.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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