Given the almost 30-year history of New Hampshire’s tortured effort to live up to — and evade — its state constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education for its students, Judge David Ruoff surely shouldn’t be surprised that the Supreme Court says his work on the latest school-funding court challenge is far from done.
In the case, brought in Cheshire County Superior Court, the ConVal, Winchester, Monadnock Regional and Mascenic Regional school districts sued the state claiming its base “adequacy” grant to local school districts of around $3,600 per student is woefully — and constitutionally — inadequate. The argument certainly seems extremely plausible, since the state’s Department of Education reports that school districts across the state spent an average of close to $17,000 per pupil during the 2019-20 school year — and that does not include certain costs, such as transportation, equipment and construction, that bring that per-pupil average closer to $20,000.
Judge Ruoff issued a ruling in 2019 that in many respects agreed with the school districts. In particular, he held the state’s adequacy aid calculation is unconstitutional as applied to the districts, though he ruled it was premature to determine the constitutionality of the statewide property tax that funds the adequacy aid grants. Not surprisingly, both the state and the school districts appealed.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, the state’s Supreme Court unanimously sent the case back to Judge Ruoff for further proceedings, ruling that he needed to hold a trial or evidentiary hearing to determine whether the state’s adequacy aid “is sufficient to deliver the opportunity for an adequate education.”
The ruling is not surprising. Since affirming in 1993, in the first so-called Claremont case, that the Constitution requires the state to provide an adequate education to all students, the Supreme Court has made every effort to let the Legislature figure out what the components and costs of an adequate education are. That’s as it should be in our system of government. But there is a limit to judicial deference when there’s a constitutional right involved, and a state adequacy grant of no more than 20 percent the average per pupil cost stretches all credulity.
Whether, as this case proceeds, it will be determined that limit has been reached remains to be seen. What’s certain, though, is a final disposition will take time, as evidentiary and other proceedings before Judge Ruoff, further appeals to the Supreme Court and, possibly, rulings to allow the Legislature to respond are clearly to come. And, meanwhile, school districts will continue to be shortchanged by the state.
In the lawsuit, ConVal and the other districts argue that the state adequacy grants should cover the costs of services which the state’s Board of Education mandates each district provide, such as nursing, superintendent and food services, and also transportation and facilities operation and maintenance. Right now, those costs are pushed down on to local property taxpayers. It’s probably too much to hope for from the current political alignment in Concord, but it would be a meaningful step toward responsible governance if the state proactively stepped up and agreed to cover these costs. That might make the state aid grants less laughably inadequate and perhaps enough to avoid an adverse court ruling. It would also ease local property tax pressure and benefit students in stressed communities.