Judge rules public school funding method unconstitutional

KEENE, N.H. (AP) — A judge has ruled that New Hampshire’s current method for funding public schools is unconstitutional, two decades after a series of court decisions that said the state has a duty to provide and pay for an adequate education.

The decision Wednesday by Superior Court Judge David Ruoff in Cheshire County follows a lawsuit by the ConVal, Mascenic, Winchester, and Monadnock school districts against the state, the Department of Education, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, and Gov. Chris Sununu. It said that goal hasn’t been accomplished.

State law sets the current base adequacy aid award for all schools at $3,562.71 per student, based on a formula determined by a legislative committee in 2008. Ruoff wrote that the parties agree “that not a single school in the State of New Hampshire could or does function” at that amount per student.

He said the amount is inaccurate, based on calculations by lawmakers that don’t take into account the real costs of transportation, teachers, or facilities. But he stopped short at picking a number. “Such a decision should not rest in the hands of judges,” he wrote.

A spokesman for Sununu echoed that sentiment. “The State is reviewing the order, but we continue to believe these critical funding decisions are best left to local elected leaders — who represent the people of New Hampshire — not judges in a court room,” Ben Vihstadt said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Education Department said no comment was planned at this time on the lawsuit.

Back in the 1990s, the state Supreme Court issued a series of decisions on education funding. One key ruling in 1997 found the state’s reliance on local property taxes for most school funding unconstitutional. The rulings came after Claremont and four towns sued the state in 1991.

In response to the rulings, the Legislature provides a set amount of financial aid per pupil, plus extra for students who meet other criteria, such as being economically disadvantaged or having special education needs.

In his budget proposal, Sununu included $64 million for school-building projects in property-poor communities. The House rejected that, instead voting to restore so-called stabilization grants to schools and adjust the formula used to send education money to towns and cities to benefit those with lower property values and higher percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That would amount to about $150 million in the second year of the budget and would be paid for by extending the 5% interest and dividends tax to cover capital gains.

The Senate, meanwhile, is voting Thursday on its version of the budget, which also would restore stabilization grants but spend about $60 million less than the House on education. The Senate wants to send more unrestricted money back to towns and cities in the form of revenue sharing, $40 million compared to the House’s $12.5 million.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, called restoration of the grants “something we’re going to do, something we should do, and we’ll see what happens beyond that.”

As legislators approach the final stages of the budget process, House Democrats “are committed to bring real relief to property tax payers while ensuring every Granite State student has access to quality education,” said Majority Leader Douglas Ley, D-Jaffrey.

Both the House and Senate want to create a commission to study new approaches to education funding. It also would study whether the funding formula complies with court decisions.


Information from: WEVO-FM, http://www.nhpr.org/