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Keene Judge Hears First Arguments in School Funding Lawsuit

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

A school funding lawsuit against the state got its first hearing at the Cheshire County Superior Court on Friday morning. The two plaintiffs, the Contoocook Valley and Winchester School Districts, argue that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education for all New Hampshire students.

In a hearing on the plaintiff's motions for preliminary injunctive relief, attorney Michael Tierney argued that the state should send a total of $21 million in aid to the districts by Monday, April 1.

This number reflects what he says is the actual per-student cost of an adequate education, based on the New Hampshire Department of Education's data on student-teacher ratio, teacher benefits, and facilities costs.

Tierney said the legislature, whose job it is to calculate and fund the cost of an adequate education, is using inaccurate numbers. He pointed to average districts' facilities costs, which are over 80 percent higher than what the state uses in it calculations.

"Heat, electricity, maintaining buildings: they're all costs. I mean, you can’t educate a child out in the snow," he told NHPR.

But Solicitor General Dan Will, the state's attorney, says this argument misses the point.

"Adequate is not the same as actual. The Supreme Court has identified a right to an adequate education. And that’s different than the school’s actual costs," he told NHPR.

During the hearing, Will argued that the court has consistently deferred to the legislature to come up with the cost of a constituionally adequate education, and that appropriating money would be a major overstep by the court.

Judge David Ruoff pressed him.

"I could envision a scenario where [the legislators] just don't want to fund an adequate school mandate, for a host of reasons, mostly fiscal," he said. "It seems to me that there has to be at some point a check on that and I don't know whether it's the court's authority to say the numbers should be $9,000 or $3,000 or whether the authority of the court begins and ends with saying: whatever it is you arrived at, you used the wrong fact-finding. Go back and do it again."

Will again stressed that the remedy is "with the legislature to correct." He also argued that ConVal has not proven “irreparable harm” to its students if the state doesn’t boost aid. In fact, he said, the harm would be to state government, which would have to find millions more dollars in the course of several days.

Ruoff said he hopes to issue an order on this motion next week, but other aspects of the lawsuit will likely be heard in court in the coming months.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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