School Funding

The latest legal battle over New Hampshire’s education funding formula, which started with a lawsuit filed last year by the ConVal Regional School District, continued Friday, with the state asking the N.H. Supreme Court to overrule a lower-court judgment that deemed the current formula unconstitutional.

ConVal sued the state in March 2019 in Cheshire County Superior Court. The Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic school districts later joined the suit, which argues that the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund education. Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff ruled largely in favor of the districts last June, but both sides appealed to the N.H. Supreme Court.

In the state’s brief, filed Friday afternoon, Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald and other state lawyers argued that Ruoff rushed the case through and applied faulty analysis in finding for the districts.

“This appeal, at its core, is about how the adversarial process should proceed,” the state wrote in its brief. “... The proceedings below bore little resemblance to this standard process. Rather, the trial court placed this case on an extraordinarily expedited schedule, where, in a matter of just eight weeks, the plaintiffs filed three separate petitions, the parties litigated the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, the State filed a comprehensive motion to dismiss, and the parties cross-moved for summary judgment.”

The state also argued that the districts did not sufficiently prove that the state’s current education funding formula deprives them of any constitutional rights.

The state’s brief comes in response to the districts’ own brief, which their attorneys filed with the court on April 15. In that document, Manchester-based lawyers Michael J. Tierney and Elizabeth E. Ewing argued that the state has failed for 25 years in its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education, and maintained that the districts proved this in the lower court.

“The State has defined a constitutionally adequate education to include transportation, an adequate number of teachers, certain benefits for those teachers, school nurses, superintendents, food services, and facilities operation and maintenance,” they wrote. “Nonetheless, the State has underfunded those cost items or failed to fund them at all.”

The districts’ attorneys also argued that Ruoff should have gone further in his ruling and ordered the state to pay millions of dollars, which the districts said the state owed them. Ruoff instead ruled that it’s up to the N.H. Legislature to revise the school funding formula.

Both the state and the districts have requested 15-minute oral arguments before the Supreme Court. It’s not clear yet when those arguments would take place. The court would likely issue its ruling in the case three to six months after oral arguments.

ConVal’s lawsuit is the latest in a line of school funding cases dating back to the early 1990s, when the state supreme court issued its landmark Claremont I and II decisions. Those opinions held that the state must fund an “adequate education.”

For the recently ended 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 $16,346 per student in fiscal year 2019, not including tuition to out-of-district schools, transportation, equipment and construction, according to data from the N.H. Department of Education.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.