The state government has appealed a June court ruling that invalidated New Hampshire’s education-funding formula, moving a lawsuit brought by local school districts to the N.H. Supreme Court.
The June 5 order by Judge David W. Ruoff of Cheshire County Superior Court held that the state has not lived up to its constitutional duty to fund an adequate education. His ruling was a victory for the ConVal Regional School District, which brought the lawsuit in March, and the Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic districts, which joined the proceedings.
The districts argued that the state government, by providing too little funding for schools, shifts the burden to local property-taxpayers.
The state’s notice of appeal, dated Wednesday, raises 10 separate questions for Supreme Court justices to ponder. They include whether the funding formula is unconstitutional and whether Ruoff was correct to order the state to pay the school districts’ legal costs.
An affidavit filed by the school districts’ attorney, Michael J. Tierney, calculated his firm’s costs at about $129,250 through early July. Payment is on hold pending the appeal.
Tierney did not respond to a request for comment on the appeal. Kate Spiner, a spokeswoman for the N.H. Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment.
The issue of school funding has gone to the N.H. Supreme Court multiple times since the early 1990s, most notably in the landmark Claremont I and II opinions of 1993 and 1997.
Those decisions grew out of a lawsuit in which Claremont and four other school districts said the state’s reliance on local property taxes forced towns with lower property values to pay much higher rates, in violation of the state constitution.
State politicians have since struggled to develop a workable funding system. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that legislators had still not defined an “adequate education” with enough specificity to come to an “objective determination of costs.”
Calculating those costs is part of the state’s obligation, Justice Gary E. Hicks wrote for the majority. “Whatever the State identifies as comprising constitutional adequacy it must pay for,” he wrote. “None of that financial obligation can be shifted to local school districts, regardless of their relative wealth or need.”
In 2008, a legislative committee devised a new definition and funding formula, which amounted to about $3,600 per student in baseline adequacy funding last school year. (Districts get additional funding based on factors such as how many students qualify for free and reduced lunch or receive special education services.)
Actual school district spending in New Hampshire was more than $17,500 per pupil on average in 2017-18, not including capital expenses and debt payments, according to N.H. Department of Education numbers.
It was that formula that the school districts challenged this year. They argued it gave districts too little funding for facilities, transportation, teacher salaries and benefits and other expenses.
The state responded that some of the costs the districts cited, such as transportation, are “ancillary” items it has no obligation to fund in full. It 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.
Lawyers for the state also maintained that lawmakers have broad discretion to make policy, and the way the committee chose to structure school funding falls within that discretion.
However, Ruoff, in invalidating the formula, wrote that some of the committee’s choices “appear baseless and the products of arguably illogical and unsound conclusions and findings.”