N.H. Supreme Court

The decades-long debate over New Hampshire’s school-funding formula will continue in Cheshire County Superior Court in the coming months, after a state Supreme Court ruling Tuesday in a case several local school districts originally filed two years ago.

Michael Tierney, the Manchester-based attorney representing the ConVal, Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic districts, said he expects the court to hold a scheduling conference within the next 30 days to discuss a trial date.

“We were ready to try this back in June of 2019, and look forward to trying it as soon as we can get on the court calendar,” Tierney said. “... We feel comfortable that we can move as expeditiously as the court will allow.”

That could be a long process, though, according to Natalie Laflamme, a Concord-based attorney who co-authored an amicus brief in the case on behalf of 25 school districts statewide, arguing that the state’s current education funding formula is unconstitutional.

“Practically, this [ruling] just means the can has been kicked down the road, potentially for another few years,” Laflamme said during a press briefing Tuesday afternoon organized by the N.H. School Funding Fairness Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for changes to the education funding formula.

“By the time this case goes through discovery and through a trial, and then, most likely, another appeal, it could be a few years before the Supreme Court can really, definitively rule on the current funding system,” Laflamme continued.

School-funding lawsuits in New Hampshire going back 30 years have argued that the state does not provide enough education dollars, instead shifting the burden to local property taxpayers.

As a result, local education taxes often make up 50 percent or more of a homeowner’s total property-tax bill, and towns can pay vastly different rates depending on their overall property values.

After a series of court rulings in the early 2000s, lawmakers formed a committee that came up with New Hampshire’s current school-funding formula in 2008. But the ConVal, Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic districts argue this formula still fails to provide a constitutionally adequate education for their students.

In a unanimous 14-page decision Tuesday, the N.H. Supreme Court sent the case back to Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff, saying he did not use the proper legal analysis when he ruled in June 2019 that the state’s school-funding formula is unconstitutional. Specifically, the high court determined that Ruoff erred by basing his ruling on the methodology that the state used in 2008 to determine its school-funding formula, and not the actual text of that statute.

N.H. Solicitor General Dan Will, who argued the state’s case before the Supreme Court, said in a written statement Tuesday that “the State will continue to defend the education adequacy funding statute” in Cheshire County Superior Court.

Additionally, in the Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Patrick E. Donovan wrote that the trial court would need to settle the “vigorously disputed” underlying facts of the case — such as determining the components and costs of a constitutionally adequate education — before issuing a summary judgment.

“So, it’s not a defeat; it’s just not a win” for the school districts, said John M. Lewis, a former superior court judge who has followed the state’s education-funding lawsuits over the past 30 years. “It’s the Supreme Court saying, ‘No, this isn’t enough. You can’t do this by summary proceedings’.”

Ruoff’s 2019 decision came after attorneys for the state and the districts requested a summary judgment, and he ruled based on written arguments from attorneys. The Supreme Court’s ruling paves the way for a trial in Cheshire County Superior Court, where attorneys will call witnesses, such as the superintendents of the four districts, to present evidence on whether the state meets its constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education, Tierney said.

In a written statement issued after the Supreme Court decision, ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders, Monadnock Superintendent Lisa Witte, Winchester Superintendent Kenneth Dassau and Mascenic Superintendent Christine Martin said they are “heartened” by the ruling.

“Today’s outcome is a positive one for students of New Hampshire, but it is only one small step toward solving an urgent issue for students throughout the state,” they wrote. “This issue has now impacted two generations of New Hampshire children and will continue as long as the state fails to meet its obligations under our state Constitution.”

Gov. Chris Sununu, meanwhile, said the Supreme Court’s ruling “reaffirms that this is an issue that belongs in the Legislature and not in legal limbo.”

“As the most representative body in America, the N.H. Legislature must have the authority to make education funding decisions,” Sununu said in a written statement Tuesday afternoon.

Jeff McLynch, director of the N.H. School Funding Fairness Project, said he agrees with the governor that the Legislature bears the responsibility to act on school funding.

“There’s nothing in the ruling today that precludes the Legislature from acting,” McLynch said during the press briefing, which was conducted via Zoom. McLynch added that state lawmakers are considering some short- and long-term changes to school funding this legislative term, but action doesn’t appear imminent.

John Tobin, an attorney who chairs the group’s board of directors and helped represent the Claremont School District in a landmark school-funding case in the 1990s, noted that a commission led by Democratic lawmakers released a report in December outlining policy recommendations for the state legislature to consider.

“The Legislature needs to get on the stick and resolve this issue,” Tobin said. “And there was a school funding commission that laid out one possible roadmap for that, and the Legislature is not hurrying to follow that. So, this is ultimately, finally the Legislature’s job. They need to take responsibility for this.”

The ConVal lawsuit is the latest in a line of school funding cases dating back to the early 1990s, when the state Supreme Court issued its Claremont I and II decisions. Those opinions held that the state must fund an “adequate education.”

For the current school year, the state provided districts with a baseline of $3,708 per student in “adequacy aid,” plus additional amounts tied to students’ socioeconomic status, how many are in special education programs and other factors.

Statewide, districts spent an average of $16,823 per student in the 2019-2020, not including tuition to out-of-district schools, transportation, equipment and construction, according to data from the N.H. Department of Education.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.