For years, there have been warnings of a coming lawsuit against the state over education funding. That’s been especially true since 2012, when the Legislature voted to cut back on aid, replacing some with targeted “stabilization” grants to poorer communities, and when it later began cutting back those grants as well.
But most observers likely expected a lawsuit along the lines of the Claremont suits in the 1990s, in which five property-poor communities successfully sued the state, arguing the system of relying on widely-varying local property tax rates to fund education is patently unfair. We say the lawsuit was successful because the state Supreme Court found in favor of the plaintiffs, ruling the constitution required the state to change its system and pay for an adequate education. But in fact, the Legislature has managed to neatly sidestep any substantial change in the system over the past two decades. Its biggest move was to start doling out education “adequacy” aid, paid for by … taxing local property owners.
Adding insult to injury, the state also determined that the amount required to provide an adequate education to the average New Hampshire student was a mere $3,456. It’s worth noting even at the time, that figure was laughably low. But in 21 years, that amount has risen only to $3,708. The average actual cost of educating a student in New Hampshire this year is about $15,800.
It makes sense, then, that the target of the lawsuit now facing the state over education funding isn’t the expected cynical funneling of local property taxes through the department of education in order to deem the funds “state aid.” Rather, it’s the obvious lack of realistic funding levels under the state’s definition of “adequate” aid.
Interestingly, the lawsuit, filed this month, came not from among the expected property-poor districts with sky-high tax rates. It came from the ConVal district. The district’s nine towns — such as Peterborough, Dublin and Hancock — are typically not seen as economically disadvantaged, though there are residents in every area community who struggle economically.
ConVal’s argument isn’t even with the state’s formula for determining what’s needed for an adequate education — though it’s worth noting that formula allows for only one administrator, one office worker, one custodian, one guidance counselor and one librarian per 500 students; it includes no central office staff, no cafeteria staff or teachers’ aides per district, nor any funds for sports or other extracurricular activities, classroom supplies or AP courses.
Rather, ConVal is taking issue with the lack of growth in the amount per student, relative to the actual costs of running schools. The state, for example, sets the average teacher’s salary under the formula at $35,539, while the actual average teacher’s salary in New Hampshire is $57,522. ConVal has determined that under the state’s own formula, the amount needed to provide the district’s students with an adequate education is $10,843 per student — three times what the state is providing.
That’s a dynamic felt all over the state, one that has been more evident than ever over the past several years in the Monadnock Region. It’s at the core of the district funding battles that have pitted towns against each other in the Monadnock and Jaffrey-Rindge districts and, to a lesser degree, in ConVal this year. It’s what has Charlestown looking to pull out of the Fall Mountain district. It’s behind the ongoing debate over the future of the Gilsum STEAM Academy.
And it has ConVal wondering how it can continue to run the small, local schools across its district, which is what prompted the district to file suit.
This week, Monadnock joined the lawsuit. We’d expect more districts to do so, even as state lawmakers and others are urging ConVal to pump the brakes. The fear is the lawsuit will somehow interfere with legislative efforts to increase state education aid.
Chief among those, perhaps, is House Bill 678, which would up the state’s adequacy aid figure to $9,929. But that effort, which would add more than $1 billion to the state’s obligation, has already been shelved in committee, and should it re-emerge, there’s little chance it would ever get by the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers ought to continue to pursue reasonable efforts to increase state aid and/or reduce the burden on local property taxpayers regardless of the ConVal suit. But given the financial stakes, we’d guess a truly significant change to the system will only occur if ordered by the courts.