Status conference

Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff, top left, and attorneys at Wednesday's status conference for ConVal's school-funding lawsuit.

A lawsuit over school funding in New Hampshire may go on trial in about a year, a judge said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Fall Mountain and Claremont school boards have decided to sign onto the lawsuit, joining the four other school districts — all in southwestern New Hampshire — that are already part of the case. The school districts’ lawyer, Michael Tierney, said Wednesday that several more districts are considering joining this week or next.

The lawsuit, originally brought by the ConVal Regional School District in March 2019, alleges that the state government is failing to live up to its constitutional duty to fund education adequately, leaving local property-tax payers to make up the difference.

Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff issued an order in June 2019 striking down the state’s school-funding formula. The N.H. Supreme Court overturned that decision last month, ruling, in part, that more fact-finding was required to decide the case.

The Supreme Court order returned the case to Ruoff’s courtroom for additional proceedings, including an eventual trial to hear factual evidence related to education funding and costs.

Winchester, Mascenic and Monadnock Regional are the other school-district plaintiffs alongside ConVal.

At a status conference Wednesday, Ruoff said that he doesn’t expect a trial would be held before summer 2022, based on his availability.

No trial date was scheduled Wednesday. Ruoff said he would issue an order giving Tierney 30 days to submit an amended complaint including the new school districts. The state would then have 30 days to respond. From there, Ruoff said, the parties can discuss among themselves and come back to him with a proposed timeline for the rest of the case.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Anthony Galdieri said the state has turned to an outside firm, Stinson LLP, which has offices in multiple states, to help try the case. He introduced two attorneys from Stinson’s St. Louis office, J. Nicci Warr and John R. Munich, who heads the firm’s education-funding litigation practice.

Tierney said the school districts would be ready to try the case in a year. As for the state, Galdieri said it would depend on what’s in Tierney’s amended complaint and how many school districts join.

The districts contend that the existing school-funding formula shortchanges districts in various ways. Districts currently receive a base rate from the state of about $3,700 per student, plus additional amounts tied to special education, poverty rates and other factors.

The state has argued that the Legislature was acting within its discretion when it enacted the current funding formula more than a decade ago and that some of the costs cited by the school districts, like school nurses and transportation, are “ancillary” to an adequate education.

Claremont’s decision to join has a symbolic resonance, as it was the lead plaintiff in a landmark school-funding lawsuit in the 1990s. In a pair of rulings in that case — known as Claremont I and II — the N.H. Supreme Court held that the state government has a constitutional obligation to fund an “adequate education” and struck down the existing funding system.

“We’ve been fighting this fight for a long time,” Claremont School Board Chairman Frank Sprague said Wednesday.

Sprague said the state continues to underfund education, resulting in poorer areas like Claremont paying higher property-tax rates while having less to spend on schools than richer communities do.

“There’s the haves and the have-nots,” he said. “And those of us over here, with the exception of Lebanon and Hanover, in the western part of the state, are pretty much forgotten.”

Fall Mountain School Board Chairman Michael Herrington said the district has supported ConVal’s efforts from the beginning. “We just wanted to join this lawsuit and add our voice to the others.”

Sentinel staff writer Jack Rooney contributed reporting.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS