Keene will not join a growing list of school districts in a lawsuit that claims the state fails to meet its constitutional duty to fund an adequate education.
The Keene Board of Education discussed adding the district as a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, originally filed by the ConVal School District in March 2019, but did not act on the matter during its meeting Tuesday night. The case is back in Cheshire County Superior Court after a state Supreme Court decision in March found that Judge David W. Ruoff did not employ the proper legal analysis when he declared the state’s current school-funding formula unconstitutional.
As of Tuesday, 16 school districts, representing nearly a quarter of all New Hampshire public school students, have joined the lawsuit, according to a news release from the ConVal district.
But Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Keene and six nearby towns — said he consulted with the district’s attorneys within the past several weeks, who advised him it wouldn’t make sense for Keene to join the suit.
“At the time of the initial filing, we received legal input that said that it wasn’t necessarily in the best interest of the board to contribute financially to something at that point in time, and I have not had any legal input that says otherwise at this time,” Malay said during the meeting, which was held in the Keene High School auditorium.
The Keene school board previously passed on an opportunity to join the lawsuit in April 2019, before it went to Cheshire County Superior Court for the first time. The Winchester, Monadnock Regional and Mascenic Regional districts did sign on to the initial suit.
Since the Supreme Court ruling in March, 12 additional districts statewide have joined the case, with Hopkinton, Lebanon, Manchester and Nashua becoming the latest to add their names this week, according to the news release from the ConVal district. The Claremont, Derry, Fall Mountain, Grantham, Hillsboro-Deering, Mascoma Valley, Newport and Oyster River districts are all co-plaintiffs as well.
“The growing momentum toward requiring the state to provide equitable funding sends a message to the State,” ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said in the release. “School districts, from the largest to the smallest, recognize the inequities. It’s time for the state to do the same.”
During a status conference in the case last month, Ruoff set Friday as the deadline for additional districts to sign on to the lawsuit. A trial date has not been set yet, but Ruoff has said it could begin in the summer of 2022.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Keene school board, member Kris Roberts said he did not support the district’s joining the suit because the court decisions in the case thus far have determined it’s up to the state Legislature to fix the school-funding formula.
“I don’t want to get into a political thing, because education shouldn’t be political,” he said. “But we don’t gain anything by putting our name to it.”
But Christopher C. Coates, a former 10-year member of the school board who was one of only two members of the public to attend Tuesday’s meeting, said he believed the district should have lent its support to the lawsuit.
“This is the 11th hour. I don’t know why we haven’t joined before this,” said Coates, who is the Cheshire County administrator. “Any opportunity to take a look at it and see if we can get more adequacy funding makes sense to me.”
Although Keene will not join the lawsuit, the district was one of 25 statewide that signed an amicus brief — a court filing from people and organizations interested in, but not directly involved with, cases — last year arguing the state’s current education-funding formula is unconstitutional. Amicus briefs do not require the parties that sign them to have any continued involvement in a case.
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 2019-20 school year, not including tuition to out-of-district schools, transportation, equipment and construction, according to data from the N.H. Department of Education.