Dunbarton doesn’t have to pay for rest of Goffstown school bond, supreme court says

  • Goffstown High School logo Courtesy—

  • Goffstown High School sign Courtesy—

Monitor staff
Published: 5/13/2016 10:37:35 AM

Dunbarton does not have to pay any more of the costs to upgrade Goffstown High School now that it has started sending students to a different school district, the state Supreme Court said Friday in a ruling which ends a dispute that dates back to 2011.

The ruling delved deeply into such arcane matters as what the state legislature meant by the word “withdrawal” in the law defining AREA (Authorized Regional Enrollment Area) regional school districts, but Dunbarton school board member Jarrett Duncan said it came to what he called straightforward contract law.

“The court focused on the contract, and the 2004 contract nullified the 2001 bond,” said Duncan, an attorney. “That was our position all along.”

Dunbarton had been part of an AREA school district with Goffstown and New Boston since 1971. The town has its own elementary school but sent older children to schools in Goffstown. In 2001, the AREA district floated a $12 million bond to upgrade Goffstown High School, which won’t be paid off until 2021.

In 2004, after state law was changed to require AREA agreements to include an expiration date, voters in the three towns approved a new 10-year contract for the district. In 2013, as that contract neared its expiration date, Dunbarton voted not to renew it the following year and instead decided to send its middle- and high-school students to the Bow School District, following some disputes about facilities and curriculum in Goffstown.

Dunbarton has signed a 10-year AREA agreement with the Bow School District.

Goffstown then argued that Dunbarton was still liable to continue paying its portion of the 20-year high school bond. Dunbarton disagreed but the state Board of Education ruled against the town, after which it appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Friday’s 4-1 ruling written by Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Dalianis agrees sides with Dunbarton.

It notes that the last AREA agreement, signed in 2004, “expressly states . . . that ‘on the effective date of this Agreement, any former AREA agreements between Goffstown, New Boston and Dunbarton shall become void,’ ” which negates Dunbarton’s future obligation for the bond.

Under an AREA agreement, one school district has full control of the school board and is called the receiving district with others called sending districts. This compares to the more common cooperative district, in which all member districts elect some members to the school board. New Hampshire has 18 AREA districts and 31 cooperative school districts.

Dunbarton currently sends 124 students in grades 7 through 10 to Bow. The town’s upper two grades still attend Goffstown on a per-capita tuition basis, a process that means they didn’t have to shift high schools. They will be transitioned into Bow in the coming years.

The 2013 vote to leave Goffstown was one of the most well attended in Dunbarton in years, according to town officials. The vote to reject a new AREA agreement with Goffstown won 286-161, and the vote to send students to Bow won 298-101.

Justice Robert Lynn dissented from Friday’s decision, although he agreed that the state law discussing AREA agreements among school districts was hard to pin down.

“Because the statutory provisions at issue are susceptible to two plausible but conflicting interpretations, the legislature should clarify their meaning so as to avoid uncertainty in this important area of law,” Lynn wrote.

The full decision can be read online at courts.state.nh.us/supreme/opinions/2016/2016040dunbartonschooldistrict.pdf.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)

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