New Hampshire Supreme Court sends ConVal school funding lawsuit back to lower court for full trial

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued a ruling on the ConVal lawsuit on Tuesday, March 23, ordering the case back to the Cheshire County Superior Court for a full trial. Filed in March 2019 by the ConVal School District in Peterborough, the suit claims that the state does not fully fund a constitutionally “adequate” education and echoes earlier lawsuits contesting the state’s school funding formula. The Cheshire County Superior Court ruled in the school district’s favor in June 2019, but both sides appealed the case. Twenty-six New Hampshire school districts, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the New Hampshire School Boards Association eventually signed onto an amicus brief in support of the suit, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments last September. 

In issuing the ruling, the Supreme Court found that the underlying facts of the case are “vigorously disputed,” making it impossible to issue a summary judgment (a judgment without a full trial), which the state had requested. 

The ruling means school districts will have to wait months or years for resolution of the lawsuit. 

Barrett Chistina, Executive Director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said his organization was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling. Further, the ruling reaffirms that the state is responsible for adequately funding education, he said. 

“The Court’s opinion once again refocuses New Hampshire’s public education funding crisis squarely on to the shoulders of the New Hampshire Legislature to establish an equitable, fair, and complete solution for adequately funding and cherishing New Hampshire’s public schools,” Christina said in an email. “The data proffered by the ConVal School Board and other plaintiffs is indisputable – state adequacy aid does not meet the real costs mandated by the state and incurred by our public schools.” 

The state currently provides schools with about $4,500 in base adequacy funds per student, while the average cost per pupil is nearly $16,000. The state’s funding formula has been challenged in court several times over the past 30 years. In 2019, the New Hampshire Legislature created the Commission to Study School Funding and charged it with reviewing the current formula and proposing changes. The Commission presented its final report in December 2020, and some of its proposals have been crafted into bills in the current legislative session. At the same time, the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering several initiatives that would direct taxpayer money to private and religious schools. Meanwhile, school districts are facing funding losses in the coming year due to declines in enrollment and the expiration of funds directed toward the state’s most vulnerable communities. 

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