11 North Country superintendents join debate, although not the lawsuit, over state funding

Monitor staff
Published: 4/1/2019 8:04:04 AM

Superintendents from 11 school districts in the North County have joined recent criticism about state funding in an unusual joint announcement, reflecting concern that is echoed by local school officials.

“Our current path will soon lead us to economic peril,” concludes a two-page letter released Thursday, signed by superintendents representing 40 towns and school districts north of the White Mountains.

However, the letter stops short of saying that the group will join a new lawsuit in which three school districts are suing the state over the level of financial support.

Many school districts are eyeing that lawsuit.

“It is on the radar of the Merrimack Valley School District,” Merrimack Valley School Board member Lorrie Carey said last week. “It hasbeen a matter of discussion for some time.” 

“It’s something we’re considering, just like everybody else,” said Franklin Superintendent Dan LeGallo. He said he will discuss the issue April 15 with the school board and meet with their attorney. “The revenue hits that we take every year are just killing us. The stabilization is going down, and adequacy is going down as our enrollment is dropping.”

LeGallo said, however, that the possibility of legislative action might make Franklin think twice about the cost of joining a lawsuit.

“There’s some sentiment out there that this maybe is not the right time to be thinking about this,” he said.

The letter from North Country superintendents, released Thursday, makes several arguments that have been part of the school-funding debate for three decades, notably a complaint that “state lawmakers continue to shift the cost of education to local communities.”

“The state provides $3,636 per pupil plus dollars based on free/reduced student populations, special education numbers and other factors. The rate is many years old and doesn’t reflect today’s costs. It’s too low,” the letter argues, saying average per-pupil tuition in the state is above $15,000.

This argument is similar to that made in a lawsuit filed March 13 in Cheshire County Superior Court by the ConVal Regional School District, based in Peterborough. Two nearby school districts – Monadnock Regional and Winchester – have joined the suit.

ConVal argues that state aid does not reflect costs for such things as transportation, facilities maintenance and teacher benefits.

In a response filed Wednesday, the state said it is not obligated to fund such “ancillary” cost because the legal definition of an adequate education is “school and curriculum based.”

ConVal is asking the court to order the state to comply with what it calls the constitutional mandate prior to the final adequacy payment of April 1.

The state’s objection says the order “would upend the present budgetary process, severely disrupt the operations of state government, and result necessarily in this Court usurping the powers of the legislative and executive branches of state government.”

The need for the state to provide a “constitutionally adequate education” came out of another lawsuit from school districts, filed by the Claremont School District and other communities starting in the 1980s and extending into the 1990s. They resulted in a 1997 ruling by the New Hampshire Supreme Court that is still being debated today.

The letter from the North Country educators, released Thursday, March 28, says some factors have increased the financial pressure on school districts.

One, it says, is that “medical advances mean increased diagnosis of learning disabilities” which has contributed to rising costs for special education.

Another factor, it argues, is that New Hampshire’s older population means people are less likely to have school-aged children and therefore less likely to vote for budgets at school district meeting: “Given the aging demographics of our state, with fewer residents having any direct connection with schools, the continued down-shifting of cost has resulted in cities and towns flat-funding school budgets just to offset major property tax hikes.”

(Leah Willingham contributed to this report. David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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