North Country bands together to urge lawmakers to reform school funding system amidst the ConVal lawsuit

On Friday, March 29, eleven North Country school districts called for “a better way to fund public education” in a joint statement featured in the Laconia Daily Sun. It came a day before the oral hearings on the ConVal lawsuit, where three districts are suing the state over what they argue is inadequate education funding.

Winchester and Monadnock School Districts have joined ConVal in its lawsuit against the state, arguing that the state’s $3,636 per student in state funding doesn’t cover the cost of an adequate education. Franklin and Merrimack Valley district leaders have talked about potentially joining the lawsuit, and the Jaffrey-Rindge School Board discussed joining the lawsuit at their School Board meeting on Monday.

In the statement, district leaders emphasized the changing needs of schools. They say that a greater need for individualized instruction, as well as more specialized services necessary to help students with learning disabilities and mental health challenges, and those affected by the opioid crisis, has not been met with the necessary state funding. As a result, they argue, taxpayers are struggling:

North Country school districts are speaking with one voice with the hope that a collaborative effort will finally encourage state lawmakers to make meaningful reforms. We hope this change will provide some relief via property taxes, and will also allow public education systems to provide a high-quality educational experience for all of our unique learners….

In addition, given the aging demographics of our state, with fewer residents having any direct connection with schools, the continued down-shifting of cost has resulted in cities and towns flat-funding school budgets just to offset major property tax hikes. Taxpayers are struggling statewide to keep up with need.

The district leaders also referenced the crux of the ConVal lawsuit–that the state’s $3,636 in base adequacy grants, which are supposed to cover the cost of an opportunity for an adequate education, don’t reflect the real cost of education:

[W]e must change legislative spending behaviors. State lawmakers continue to shift the cost of education to local communities. The state provides $3,636.00 per pupil plus dollars based on free/reduced student populations, special education numbers and other factors. The rate is many years old and doesn’t reflect today’s costs. It’s too low.

The average tuition for a student in the State of New Hampshire, based on the 2017-18 data: elementary school – $15,981, middle school – $15,021, and high school – $16,214.

Considering the state education tax is also levied on local taxpayers, locals are paying both the state and local share of education through their property taxes. Considering property-poor towns have no funding alternatives, Concord lawmakers must create a new system of payment that removes the property tax burden from our local taxpayers and directs extra aid to communities struggling to fund basic educational services.  It must be equitable and sustainable.

The same day, oral arguments began in Cheshire County Superior Court between the state and ConVal, Winchester, and Monadnock School Districts.

The districts argue that the state is not keeping up their end of the bargain when it comes to school funding. As the state’s Supreme Court ruled in the Claremont decisions, every child in the state has the right to an adequate public education, as defined by the legislature, and the state has an obligation to pay for it in its entirety.

From the Union Leader:

“The state has in the past and intends in the future to fail to fully fund an adequate education,” Tierney said Friday morning during arguments in the Cheshire Superior Court in Keene.

Tierney argued that the amount is the result of the Legislature using bad numbers for the funding formula. Using the state’s data, Tierney claims that the adequacy grants for ConVal and Winchester should be close to $10,000 per student…

“(New Hampshire) needs to apply its formula using real data,” Tierney said.

New Hampshire Solicitor General Dan Will argued that even if the state is wrong, Ruoff does not have the authority to intervene. Any change to the funding formula must come from the Legislature, Will said.

“It is up to the Legislature, not the courts, to decide adequate education funding,” Will said.

Meanwhile, other districts are considering joining the lawsuit, reported the Concord Monitor:

“It is on the radar of the Merrimack Valley School District,” Merrimack Valley School Board member Lorrie Carey said last week. “It has been a matter of discussion for some time.”

“It’s something we’re considering, just like everybody else,” said Franklin Superintendent Dan LeGallo. He said he will discuss the issue April 15 with the school board and meet with their attorney. “The revenue hits that we take every year are just killing us. The stabilization is going down, and adequacy is going down as our enrollment is dropping.”

Read more about education funding in New Hampshire, and how we got here: