ConVal sues state, Sununu demanding adequate education funding

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ConVal Regional High School. Photo/InDepthNH

CONCORD, NH – The Contoocook Valley School District has filed suit against the state, Gov. Chris Sununu and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut demanding the state ensure a constitutionally adequate education for New Hampshire students.

The district, known as ConVal District, also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in Cheshire Superior Court on Wednesday, according to Rich Cahoon, vice chairman of the ConVal School Board.

Cahoon said the state has not done what is required to provide funding for an adequate education despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Claremont decision.

The state also hasn’t followed the 2000 Claremont II decision not to pass the responsibility back to the community, he said.

“We’re coming up on 19 years and the state has yet to comply,” Cahoon said.

Cahoon said the major piece of proposed legislation this session, House Bill 709, if passed, would only be a band-aid solution.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Cahoon said.

If the state paid its share, Cahoon said local property taxes would go down.

Frank Edelblut, the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education, issued the following statement after the lawsuit was announced.

“The amount and source of education funds, in addition to educational attainment associated with that investment, is a vitally important conversation to have for our children’s future. I hope that through this action, the Legislature can actively engage in constructive dialog and we look forward to supporting them in that effort,” Edelblut said.

The ConVal School District serves the following towns: Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier said he hasn’t discussed the lawsuit with his local boards, but he has been very vocal about how the reduction in state aid has hurt Berlin schools.

Grenier said speaking only for himself that he wants to follow through on what the legislature is proposing this session. Grenier has spent a lot of time in Concord testifying in front of legislative committees on various education bills.

As to the possibility of joining ConVal’s lawsuit: “I don’t think we’re there yet,” Grenier said.

New Hampshire School Administrative Association Executive Director Carl Ladd issued the following statement Wednesday:

 “It has seemed somewhat inevitable that an additional lawsuit regarding the lack of adequate funding for public schools would be filed at some point. Legislators, communities, taxpayer groups, and educators have been debating and arguing over school funding for decades, with no clear resolution in sight.  While anticipating an action of this type in the future, and certainly sympathizing with the urgency that the ConVal School Board and communities are feeling right now, the timing of this lawsuit is problematic.

For the first time in many years, the Legislature is taking a substantive and measured look at public school funding.  There are multiple bills to address several issues: increased stabilization for immediate need, adjusted adequacy for the mid-term, and a fully funded adequacy commission to research and resolve the issue in the long term.  As well are all aware, the legislative process takes time, persuasion, careful thought, and a great deal of input from all stakeholders.

We hope that the filing of this lawsuit does not detract from the Legislature’s current responsibilities and efforts, or serve to convince some to simply wait and see what the courts will decide. Many districts need immediate help from this legislative session while a more equitable long-term solution is found.  Our hope is that this will be an opportunity for all of us to finally get it right – to find a solution that ensures equity among all students, communities and taxpayers while focusing on maintaining a high-quality education for all.”

A news release from the ConVal School Board detailed the state Supreme Court’s landmark Claremont decision that determined it is a state obligation to ensure a constitutionally adequate education for New Hampshire children.

“Efforts on the part of the New Hampshire Legislature have been ongoing since 1993 to resolve the funding shortfalls.

“Regrettably, the Legislature to date has been unable to provide adequate funding to the local communities so that all children in New Hampshire receive a fair and equitable education, forcing local taxpayers to choose between supporting the children in their communities and being overwhelmed by increasing local taxes,” the release stated.

Cahoon said the complaint is based on the state’s own formula and data, how the state’s base adequacy funding falls short of constitutionally sufficient funding for New Hampshire children.

In seeking declaratory and injunctive relief in court, the motion cited the state Supreme Court.

“As the New Hampshire Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, ‘The State [has] the exclusive obligation to fund a constitutionally adequate education. The state may not shift any of the constitutional responsibility to local communities.’”

In the petition, ConVal said the state must provide ConVal with base adequacy funding of $22,164,318.40 ($10,843.60 per pupil x 2,044 pupils) to meet its constitutional obligations for the 2019 fiscal year.

But the state only intends to provide the district with $7,432,106.64 in base adequacy funding for the 2019 fiscal year, the petition stated.

The state does not provide sufficient funds for each and every school district to meet minimum state requirements, the lawsuit said.

Property wealthy towns in ski or lake communities retain the entirety of the State Wide Education Property Tax (SWEPT) collected resulting in places like Waterville Valley receiving and retaining $23,201 per pupil, Newington receiving $23,315.92 per pupil and Moultonborough receiving and retaining $14,187.12 per pupil, it stated.

Most of the state, however, including ConVal, receive base adequacy aid at a rate of $3,636.06 per pupil and need to raise additional funds via local taxation in order to provide a constitutionally adequate education, the lawsuit states.

“The ConVal School Board has not taken this step lightly, it is time for the State to fulfill its promise to our children and to bring relief to the local taxpayers,” the school board press release states.