The New Hampshire Legislature has taken a year to study the state’s education funding formula, which some say creates challenging budgetary issues for the state’s most vulnerable cities and towns. From the Concord Monitor:
Doug Hall, the former founding director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, gave the panel [to study the funding formula] advice about how to better re-distribute stabilization aid to best target poorer towns. It isn’t a proposal he’s particularly enthusiastic about.
“That is, in my mind, talking about how to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said.
The committee should be discussing whether the base, $3,600 per-pupil grant it gives schools, is anywhere near enough, he said.
“That question, as far as I can see, is not being discussed very openly, if at all. And because it’s not, it might be time for another lawsuit,” he said.
And some are considering doing just that. The Pittsfield school board recently reached out to Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, who was the plaintiffs’ lead attorney for the landmark state Supreme Court Claremont cases of the 1990s that established the state’s responsibility to pay for an adequate education.
“I promised that as long as I hold office, I won’t sue the state, and I’m keeping to that promise. But I do know how this works, and I’m not opposed to being an honest broker of information,” Volinsky said.
And John Tobin, the former director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance – and another Claremont attorney – has separately been mulling litigation.
“Since we did the lawsuit, demographics have in certain ways made the situation worse,” he said.
Tobin said he didn’t yet have any concrete plans, and hadn’t recruited additional attorneys or clients. But he said he’d been working through what the legal arguments could be, and that several aspects of the state’s current system flagrantly violated prior Supreme Court rulings.
Take, for example, the statewide property tax, which helps pay for state education aid. In particularly property-rich towns, revenues from the statewide tax exceed what the state is obligated to pay out to that town. The excess – right now, about $30 million annually – gets remitted back to those towns.
“There were two explicit Supreme Court decisions about how they can’t do what they’re doing now,” he said. “That is blatantly unconstitutional.”
For his part, Volinksy is skeptical a lawsuit should be initiated. Despite a string of successful suits, resistance in both parties has kept New Hampshire heavily reliant on local property taxes to pay for schools. A report out this summer from the N.H. Center for Public Policy Studies highlighted that disparities in spending and tax rates are as bad now as they were before Claremont.
“It’s not necessary that it should be the only way to go. There is a ballot box,” Volinksy said. “I did run for office because I’m not confident that you can change this dynamic simply by lawsuits.”
Learn more about how the state funds our education system by watching Reaching Higher NH’s webinar, Public Education Funding: A-Z.