Twenty five school districts and the state School Boards Association have now joined forces in the latest education-financing lawsuit and asked the state Supreme Court to set a deadline for the legislature to reform the current school funding formula and “end the injustice and unfairness that continue to afflict our school children and our taxpayers.”
“We can’t continue to cut our programs ... we also know that we can’t keep raising taxes on those in the community who can least afford it,” Hopkinton school board chair Jim O’Brien said Wednesday during a conference call with other school board officials. Voters in Hopkinton, where the property tax rate is among the highest in the state, have refused to support seven school budget proposals in recent weeks.
“What we see is a real battle taking place neighbor against neighbor,” O’Brien said. By joining in the lawsuit, he said he hoped Hopkinton can provide some relief to students and taxpayers.
The request for a legislative deadline comes as the Commission to Study School Funding, established by the Legislature last year and backed with a $500,000 budget, moves forward with the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH and a Washington DC-based research firm, on a detailed examination of the state’s school financing system. The project includes collection and analysis of data on student performance, economic backgrounds, local revenues and expenditures for use in identifying disparities in educational outcomes and opportunities in cities and towns. The researchers, who have directed education adequacy and financing studies in 14 other states, will use their findings to help the Commission define an “adequate” education and recommend models for how to pay for it.
At stake are issues that have vexed policymakers since the Supreme Court declared more than 25 years ago that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide and pay for an “adequate education” for all public school students. In New Hampshire, where 70 percent of school funding comes from property taxpayers, the core issue remains the same: how to provide fair and equitable educational opportunities to all school children, no matter where they live.
The 16 Commission members, who include state lawmakers, school administrators, a former state revenue commissioner and members of the public, have met 25 times, either in full session or working groups, since January.
All the meetings have been held as Zoom teleconferences since the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic. The analysts from American Institutes for Research (AIR) are scheduled to submit their final report to the Commission by Aug. 1.
The commission chair, State Rep. David Luneau of Hopkinton said this week that the commission plans to have recommendations ready for review by the governor and members of the House and Senate in time for the new legislative session, which begins in January. The school districts and the school board association want the Supreme Court to give lawmakers until the end of that session — July 1, 2021 — to act.
“The current funding formula pays for less than one-third of the actual cost of public K-12 public education in New Hampshire,” the school districts argue in their recent court filing. As a result of this “bare-bones approach,” they say “local property owners have continued to pay school taxes at highly unequal rates and another generation of New Hampshire school children has passed through schools systems across the state which have been funded inequitable.”
The school districts filing was made in connection with the case now before the Supreme Court that was brought by four school districts in the mostly rural southwestern New Hampshire— Contoocook Valley, Winchester, Mascenic and Monadnock. Those districts contended that the 2008 formula that the state uses to calculate the base adequacy grant paid to local districts is unconstitutional because it fails to come close to covering the true cost of providing an “adequate” education, forcing local taxpayers to cover the state’s funding gap.
In their region, the four districts said the actual cost per student — according to the state’s own formula — is $9,929, while the state’s base adequacy grant is now $3,709. According to the Department of Education, the average expenditure per pupil in New Hampshire is $16,000, not counting transportation and buildings.
In a 96-page decision that reignited the long-simmering school funding debate, Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff dissected the state’s exhaustive school funding history, in the courts and in the Legislature, saying in those four school districts, the current formula failed to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to fund an “adequate” education. In calculating costs in the base adequacy grant in 2008, Ruoff said, the legislators decisions were consistently “unsupported, unexplained or unfounded.”
Ruoff said he found little evidence to support the number the lawmakers came up with, including teacher-student ratios set down in the formula and transportation costs. Some state-mandated services are not included in the calculations, such as the school nurse and food services.
In the Supreme Court, all of the school districts argue the entire school funding system unconstitutional because it results in harsh disparities in local tax rates. Property-poor towns are forced to raise taxes because state adequacy aid is so underfunded, but property-rich towns can keep their rates low and fully support their schools. For example, the districts point out, Derry, Hopkinton and Berlin pay a higher tax rate than Portsmouth and Moultonborough, even though they spend less per pupil.
The same “grossly disproportionate school tax rates” that the Supreme Court said were unconstitutional decades ago “persist today throughout the state,” the school districts that support the ConVal case have said.
The Attorney General’s office vigorously objected to Ruoff’s rulings, saying the judge had turned the judiciary into a “super legislature ... standing ready to audit and second-guess” lawmakers on education issues. In their appeal now before the Supreme Court, the state’s lawyers contend that the definition of an “adequate” education in state law meets the “constitutional minimum.” They challenge the validity of the school district’s evidence about what it spends and argue that the court should either reverse Ruoff’s decision or send the ConVal case back to the trial court for a full evidentiary hearing on the costs of an “adequate” education.
In response, the four districts say that for too long, the state has shifted the responsibility to fund a constitutionally adequate education to local school districts “providing them with inadequate funding and leaving school districts to shoulder the burden.” They have asked the justices to “finally place those burdens where they belong — with the state” and order a hearing to determine what those four school districts who brought the case are owed.
“The legislative deadline passed years ago,” ConVal’s lawyer Michael J. Tierney said Wednesday about the request to give policymakers time to act. “This has been going on for decades.”
Oral arguments at the Supreme Court could be scheduled in late September or October, but no date has been set.
Meanwhile, the commission released a preliminary report Tuesday. Bruce L. Mallory, the school funding project director at Carsey, said a statewide survey of residents’ attitudes on school funding is scheduled to be conducted in September. Mallory, who has served as provost and executive vice president at UNH and chair of the University’s education department, said community discussions at locations around the state in the fall will be conducted remotely unless circumstances change.
Research documents, recordings of commission and working group meetings and access to upcoming meetings, via video conference, is available at carsey.unh.edu/school-funding.