A judge has sided with area school districts in an education-funding lawsuit, ruling that New Hampshire’s existing funding levels are unconstitutional.
The lawsuit — filed in March by ConVal Regional School District and joined by the Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic districts — argued the state is failing to live up to its constitutional mandate of funding an adequate education and is shifting the burden to local property-taxpayers.
In a nearly 100-page ruling Wednesday afternoon, Judge David W. Ruoff of Cheshire County Superior Court agreed.
“It has been more than twenty-five years since the New Hampshire Supreme Court first instructed the Legislature to comply with its exclusive obligation to define and provide funding for an adequate education,” Ruoff wrote. “As explained below, in this Court’s judgment, the Legislature is not there yet.”
However, Ruoff declined to order the state to immediately pay the school districts millions of dollars. The districts had requested that, saying they are owed the money due to the state’s insufficient funding.
He also did not specify how exactly the state should fix the education-funding system, saying the job is properly left to legislators.
ConVal and the other districts had argued that the baseline education aid provided by the state —about $3,600 per student per year — vastly understates the actual cost of educating a child in New Hampshire, burdening taxpayers in property-poor school districts. Statewide, school districts spend an average of nearly $19,000 per student per year, according to N.H. Department of Education statistics.
“The Court’s findings were consistent with our assertion that the present levels of funding for public education in the State of New Hampshire are unconstitutional,” ConVal and Monadnock said in identical news releases Wednesday.
Ruoff ordered the state to pay the school districts’ attorneys fees.
State officials said Wednesday night that they are looking over Ruoff’s order.
“The State is reviewing the order, but we continue to believe these critical funding decisions are best left to local elected leaders — who represent the people of New Hampshire — not judges in a court room,” Gov. Chris Sununu’s office said in a statement provided by a spokesman.
The statement noted Sununu’s support for “efforts to alleviate the burdens of property-poor towns by supporting targeted school building aid and the concept of stabilization grants.”
N.H. Solicitor General Daniel E. Will, in a statement Wednesday night, said his office is going over “the court’s lengthy order.”
“At this point we have yet to determine any next steps,” Will said.
The state had argued in response to the lawsuit that some of the costs the districts cited, such as transportation, are “ancillary” items it has no obligation to fund in full. It also said local districts can make decisions about their schools that increase spending beyond the constitutional mandate, but the state is not obligated to cover those costs.
Officials from local districts involved in the lawsuit praised the order Wednesday night.
“Overall, Winchester is proud to stand with ConVal and the other districts in this matter and looking forward to positive things in the future,” Lindseigh Picard, chairwoman of the Winchester School Board, said.
Monadnock Regional School District Superintendent Lisa A. Witte said she is “very pleased” with the ruling.
“It really did address that philosophical question, that the state has not been meeting its constitutional obligation as far as public education,” she said. “... Taking it in context, I understand it’s one step in a longer process. But it certainly is great to have that affirmation.”
School funding is an ongoing issue in many New Hampshire communities. Local education taxes often make up 50 percent or more of a homeowner’s total property-tax bill, and the reliance on local property taxes means different towns can pay vastly different rates.
The school districts’ lawsuit builds on N.H. Supreme Court case law going back to the landmark Claremont I and II opinions of the 1990s. Those decisions established that the state has a duty to provide and fund an “adequate education” and invalidated the funding system in place at the time.
That mandate eventually led to a 2008 fact-finding report by a legislative committee, which formed the basis for the existing system of adequacy aid from the state.
ConVal and the other districts took the committee to task in their lawsuit, arguing that its findings shortchanged the schools in various ways.
Ruoff agreed with the districts on several points. He wrote that the adequacy aid formula underfunds transportation and building-operation costs with no clear rationale — noting that, according to ConVal’s superintendent, the amount calculated for facilities costs doesn’t even pay the district’s oil and gas bill.
Ruoff also took issue with the “faulty” student-teacher ratio the committee used to determine how many teachers to pay for. The ratio corresponds to the maximum allowable class size under state regulations — one teacher per 30 students for most grades. It essentially assumes a school will “function at maximum capacity — and exactly at maximum capacity,” Ruoff wrote.
Ruoff’s order invalidates RSA 198:40-a, II(a), the statute setting the adequacy aid level.
He wrote that some of the committee’s cost determinations were not adequately explained, while “some of the (committee’s) decisions, most notably its teacher-student ratio, appear baseless and the products of arguably illogical and unsound conclusions and findings.”
The order concludes with Ruoff praising legislators for their efforts on school funding, while saying they must do more.
“(T)he Court,” he wrote, “expects the Legislature to respond thoughtfully and enthusiastically to funding public education according to its constitutional obligation.”
Sentinel staff writers Meg McIntyre and Jake Lahut contributed to this report.