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Dover School Funding Dispute Heads to Court Friday. Here's What You Need to Know

Dover School District

On Friday, all three branches of New Hampshire’s government will meet in a courtroom, in the latest dispute over how the state pays for public schools.

The showdown is prompted by a lawsuit brought by the city of Dover. It challenges a spending cap the Legislature has placed on how much money public schools can get from the state each year.

Scroll down for a chart and map tallying the impact of this policy over the past few years.

NHPR’s Jason Moon recently talked with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to discuss the case and its place in a long history of education funding battles.

This latest challenge to the state’s formula for paying school districts comes from the City of Dover. What exactly are they arguing?

Well, to understand their argument we first have to back up a little and explain how New Hampshire pays for public schools. School districts are funded by a combination of local property taxes, a little bit of federal money, and grants from the state. The state has a formula to determine how much it will send to each district, based largely on the number of students.

The only thing is that for the last several years the Legislature hasn’t actually paid school districts the way its own formula says it should.

The formula has been skewed in two ways.

Schools with declining enrollment have received extra money called stabilization grants.

Meanwhile, the amount of state money going to schools that are growing quickly has been capped.

And that’s what this lawsuit is all about. Dover has been missing out on state money it would have received if not for the cap. In fact, since 2012 -the last time the formula was tweaked- the cap has cost Dover over $7 million. And they’re arguing that amounts to a failure by the state to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education for children.

Now, it’s worth noting that the cap is set to rise next school year and then be totally removed the following year. But Dover wants a more permanent solution: They want to make sure the cap goes away and never comes back. And of course they want the money they say the cap has cost them.

Ok so what does the state have to say about all that?  I assume they see it differently.

That’s actually where it gets interesting. Last year the New Hampshire attorney general said to Dover, "You’re right -- the cap is unconstitutional." And so the AG won’t be defending it in court.

But, remember: Dover also wants back pay for the years it was short-changed by the capped state payments. And when it comes to that issue, the AG says not so fast.

First of all, they say, the money Dover is claiming never existed. The state collects only as much money as it needed to pay school districts with the cap figured in. So the AG is arguing we never had the money so you can’t sue us for it.

They’re also arguing that when Dover accepted those payments with the cap in place, they waived the right to challenge it now. In other words, the AG says Dover didn’t complain then, so it’s too late now.

Map: What Has the Cap on State Education Grants Cost New Hampshire Towns?

Click on the map to see the impact of the cap on some New Hampshire towns from FY 2012-2016.

For a better experience on mobile, turn your device sideways.

So the Attorney General will be defending a portion of the lawsuit, but I gather that’s not the end of the story is it?

Right. Just to make things a little more interesting, there are actually three parties in this case. When the AG announced last year it wouldn’t defend the cap, lawyers for the House and Senate Republican leadership stepped in and said wait a minute, this cap was a law passed by the people’s representatives; it should at least be defended in court.

There's also some political undertones here: The Attorney General is appointed by Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan and the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans.

It’s also worth pointing out that the lawyer representing Dover in this case, Andru Volinsky, is the same lawyer who represented Claremont in those earlier cases. He’s also running for the Executive Council this year.

So what starts as a lawsuit over education spending can become a sort of turf war between the branches of government. And that, in some ways, is the legacy of the so-called Claremont decisions that this case stems from. 

Lawmakers spent much of the 1990s and 2000s fighting with the Supreme Court over its rulings in those cases, named for the town that originally sued over the school funding system more than 20 years ago. Those cases are what originally established that the state has to pay for local schools at all.

This issue has been quieter the last several years, but this case has the potential to stoke those embers.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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