For decades now, New Hampshire communities have been dealing with the inequity of the state’s overreliance on property taxes to fund local government. This inequity has particularly been evident in education, where the quality of schooling varies greatly from district to district, and can be tied directly to property values.
Nearly three decades ago, five property-poor communities sued the state to own up to its constitutional responsibility to educate its children fairly. They won, twice, before the state’s highest court. And it’s thus far made not a lick of difference. Those communities with wealth have endlessly sidestepped any attempts to pry it loose for the educational benefit of New Hampshire students.
The most recent attempt is a lawsuit by the ConVal Regional School District and others, charging that by the state’s own definition of what is necessary for an adequate education, the amount being sent to districts is woefully short of the mark. That lawsuit was remanded by the state Supreme Court to Cheshire County Superior Court for a trial or evidentiary hearing to determine whether the state’s adequacy aid “is sufficient to deliver the opportunity for an adequate education.”
Any rational viewing of what the state provides vs. the actual cost of educating students in New Hampshire would make clear it is not. But sometimes, legal arguments follow their own logic, which does not adhere to what most of us might expect. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, more school districts have been signing on to the lawsuit. The latest, this week, was Derry, so far the largest district involved.
That case will likely not be settled for months, or even years, if the result is again appealed. In the meantime, a letter arrived this past week at the offices of the governor and the General Court. Signed by 80 local officials — mayors, city councilors, school board members, state representatives and selectboard members, including three Keene city councilors and the chair and vice chair of the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District board — it calls on the House and the governor to take up the recommendations of the recent Commission to Study School Funding.
That group wrapped up almost a year of study in December, issuing a call for more support of public education. Bill Ardinger, Gov. Sununu’s appointee to the panel, stated: “New Hampshire’s poorer communities are currently producing worse student outcomes than wealthier communities — [this] is a 9–1–1 call for a prompt emergency response.”
The commission recommends the state develop a new formula that directs a bigger share of its education budget to districts with higher needs. Since the state’s adequacy aid is entirely inadequate to begin with, and based on factors thrown into disarray by the pandemic (attendance, percentage of students receiving school meal assistance), those districts most in need stand to lose even more this coming year.
Sununu, and the state Senate, have pushed for aid to be based on 2019 figures — before the pandemic skewed the numbers — but the House has, so far, not taken up that call.
We don’t expect any sudden change in attitude from state officials on school funding, in response to the letter or the lawsuit. But there’s no doubt the pressure is ramping up.
The question remains, what will be done? The first step ought to be, as recommended by the study commission, to rethink how aid is distributed. For too long property-rich towns have staved off paying their fair share of state taxes for educating all the state’s students. Beyond that step, however, the real change that’s needed is to find a fairer way of paying for public schools than local property taxes. That’s what’s led to the inequities in the first place.
Perhaps the next logical step would be for those 80 local officials, and anyone else who sees the state’s school funding setup for what it is — a regressive and inadequate system that punishes those in property-poor towns both with higher taxes and lesser educational outcomes — to work to convince any voters who’ll listen that the usual suspects in Concord need replacing with leaders who’ll actually lead on this issue.