When the ConVal School District’s challenge to the state’s system of public school funding was opened before Judge David Rove in Rockingham County Superior Court last week, District Attorney Anthony Galderi noted, “This case is just about whether school districts can shift costs to all taxpayers across the state.”
However, school districts pursuing the case, including Masinick, will say that the question is whether, after three decades, the state will fulfill its constitutional obligations as ordered by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in the Claremont founding rulings of 1993 and 1997.
Subsequently, the court determined that the state constitution places on the state an “unequivocal statutory duty” to provide an appropriate education for every child and to “ensure adequate funding.” It further ordered that, to the extent property is taxed to finance this obligation, it should be “equally assessed and uniform in price throughout the State.”
This is the second bite of apple from Conval, and also for Rove. The county first sued in 2019 in Cheshire County High Court, claiming that the state had failed to meet its obligation to fund adequate education. At the time, Rove found that the state was violating its constitutional duty to fund appropriate education, but refused to specify its components or cost, which he acknowledged was the prerogative of the legislature.
Both the state and plaintiffs have appealed Roof’s ruling to the Supreme Court, where the justices have found the essential facts of the case such that he “disputed so vigorously” that he could not issue a decision and sent the case back to the Supreme Court for a second trial now under way.
In defending the state, Attorney General John Formilla has assembled a legal team of seven, three associate prosecutors and four attorneys from Stinson LLP, a 1,000-employee firm headquartered in St. Louis with an office in New York.
Throughout the litigation Michael Tierney and Elizabeth Ewing of the ConVal firm of Wadleigh and Starr & Peters of Manchester represented. Since the litigation began, ConVal has been joined by 10 more school districts across the state serving 32 municipalities, including Manchester, Nashua, Carmont, Oyster River, Derry and Lebanon.
Plaintiff districts argue that per-pupil base sufficiency calculated and distributed by the state in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 were $3,708 and $3,786, respectively, while average spending per K-12 pupil was $19,399 across the board. across the state.
The petition concludes, “The state does not currently provide sufficient funds for each school district to provide a constitutionally adequate education.”
In her opening statement to the plaintiffs, Ewing noted that “the state will present no evidence that a constitutionally adequate education can be provided for $3,700.”
Furthermore, the plaintiffs highlight a number of other flaws in the school’s funding formula. Although no district spends less than $400 per student on transportation, the state saves only $315, which is well below the statewide average cost of $827.
The state’s formula applies teacher-student ratios of 1:25 for kindergarten through second grade and 1:30 for grades three through twelve, although no district in the state reports a ratio greater than 1:17.5. Data from the Department of Education indicates that the ratio statewide has not exceeded 1:12.6 for a decade.
They also point to the government’s funding formula, which allocates $11,728 to teacher benefits. But contributions to the state pension system, federal employment taxes, and health insurance premiums add up to more than $27,000.
Plaintiffs say the state requires schools to hire the services of a nurse at an average cost of $65,562 in salary and benefits, but its funding formula includes no provisions for those expenses. Similarly, the state requires each school administrative unit or one school district to have a superintendent, at an average cost of $158,000, and large districts must hire an assistant superintendent and business manager, but don’t allocate any funding for the jobs.
In addition, the state requires schools to provide food service whether it is profitable or not. In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, New Hampshire schools spent $70.2 million on food services and collected $36.6 million in food service revenue, posting a loss of $33.6 million — $200 per student out of the state’s 166,321 pupils. It was all borne by the school districts.
Finally, plaintiffs point out that the funding formula allocates just $195 per pupil for the cost of operating and maintaining the school’s facilities, while data from the Department of Education indicates an average cost of $1,462 per year across the state.
According to ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo-Saunders, to meet its commitment to funding appropriate education, the state must provide $9,929 per pupil in basic adequacy in addition to “actual” transportation costs for each school district.
The plaintiffs note that the effect of insufficient state funding is to place a disproportionate share of the cost of public education on municipal property taxpayers, whose tax rates vary widely across the state in contrast to the Supreme Court ruling. However, unlike another pending court case — which hinges on the constitutionality of both the state education property tax and local school property taxes — the tax issue is not a major topic in ConVal’s argument.
In defending the state, the Formella team does not seek to justify the state’s contribution to public school funding. Instead, they base their defense mainly on two assumptions, one based on the separation of powers and the other constraining the cost of appropriate education to the factors mentioned in the law.
First, the state asserts that the court “lacks the jurisdiction to award any relief to the plaintiffs other than a simple statement that the state is complying or not complying with its constitutional duties.” Instead, the means of fulfilling the state’s constitutional duties are vested in the legislature, which “has the exclusive discretion to determine the necessary and appropriate programs and funding levels.”
The state brief stated, “This case presents one or more non-justiciable political questions due to the lack of judicially discoverable and manageable criteria, and the impossibility of deciding cases without political decision-making of the kind expressly reserved for non-judicial discretion.”
Tension between the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government has fueled the school finance debate since its inception, leading to the failure of more than 40 proposals to amend the state constitution in a vain attempt to reduce, if not extinguish, the role of the court.
In 2006, the Supreme Court expressed concern that “this or any court does not assume the role of the legislature in shaping educational and financial policy,” but then added, “It is the responsibility of the judiciary to ensure that constitutional rights are not emptied and, if not the existence of actions by other branches, a judicial remedy is not only appropriate, but necessary.”
The state also claims that school districts spend substantial funds in excess of what is required to provide a constitutionally adequate education. These expenses stem from “issues regarding local school district choices, local district philosophies, and local accounting practices” and are applied to “unnecessary, inefficient, and/or outdated infrastructure and other resources.”
Among these expenses, the state claims, are transportation costs and the operation and maintenance of school facilities, although the state acknowledges that “the learning environment generally requires things like light and heat.”
Likewise, the state denies that schools require nursing services. For issues of teacher-student ratios and teacher benefit packages, the state describes the school districts’ report of the data to the Department of Education as “self-reported, unaudited, and unverified.”
Furthermore, the state sought to disallow Rizzo-Saunders, along with 18 other school officials from the plaintiff’s districts—supervisors, business managers, and members of the school board—from testifying as expert witnesses. Rove denied the movement.
The idea that school budgets are bloated by expenditures that exceed the cost of providing adequate education was the dominant theme in the first week of the experiment.
In the first week of certification. Senior Assistant Attorney General Sam Garland grilled Rizzo Saunders for two days about the details of the Conval County budget, aiming to identify those unnecessary and ineffective expenditures beyond what is required for an adequate education, frequently asking, ‘Is this a matter of local choice? ? “
Rizzo-Saunders explained how she developed the estimate of $9,929 per pupil as a basic adequacy cost, using what she called “conservative numbers,” such as tying teacher cost to first-year salary rather than veteran teacher and eliminating the cost of sports teams altogether. At the same time, she noted, some large costs, such as teachers’ retirement contributions, are beyond the district’s control, and others, such as salaries and benefits, affect recruitment and staff retention.
Business administrators from Winchester, Hopkinton, and Fall Mountain regional counties testified that the cost of base adequacy can range from $11,000 to $14,000 per pupil.
The trial resumes this week with testimony from Frank Edelbott, the education commissioner, who spent most of his tenure seeking to support alternatives to private and public education. He is scheduled to testify on Tuesday.
These articles are shared by the partners at The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit Coopativenh.org.