N.H. Supreme Court Sends School Funding Case to Lower Court for Full Trial
The New Hampshire Supreme Court has declined to issue a definitive order on a case about school funding, instead sending it back to a lower court for a full trial.
The unanimous opinion issued Tuesday avoids an immediate overhaul of the state’s education funding model, which currently sends “adequacy aid" to school districts at a rate of about $4,500 per pupil.
In 2019, a coalition of districts, led by the Contoocook Valley School District, sued the state over this formula, alleging that it was unconstitutional and forced local taxpayers to shoulder too much of the burden. In order to cover the cost of an “adequate education” as defined by state law, the plaintiffs said the state should give them about $10,000 per pupil.
Later that year, a Cheshire County Superior Court judge ruled partially in the districts’ favor, saying the state’s funding formula is unconstitutional. The judge, David Ruoff, also said the state’s method for calculating what it owes districts through “base adequacy aid” was deeply flawed. But Ruoff did not specify a dollar amount the state owed districts, instead urging the legislature to figure it out “thoughtfully and enthusiastically.”
The state appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, arguing that districts spend far more than what is required for an “adequate education,” and that schools hadn’t proven their expenses fall within that category. The state asked the Supreme Court to issue a summary judgement, which the court denied.
The court's decision to send this back for trial means it could be entangled in the courts for years, leaving districts without a quick resolution on fundamental questions of funding. It could also be appealed, again, to the state Supreme Court.
But Michael Tierney, a lawyer for the districts, said he was optimistic the case could move forward quickly.
“We’re very happy with this,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to present what the costs actually are, and what the components of those costs are, and having the Superior Court make a determination as to what the level of underfunding is.”
Gov. Chris Sununu, who is named as one of the defendants, issued the following statement:
“We appreciate the court’s diligence and for their work in reviewing this case. Today’s ruling reaffirms that this is an issue that belongs in the Legislature and not in legal limbo. As the most representative body in America, the NH Legislature must have the authority to make education funding decisions.”
New Hampshire courts have issued major rulings on school funding several times over the past three decades, most addressing the question of the state’s proper responsibility for funding local school costs. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court made a series of decisions in the landmark Claremont cases, saying New Hampshire needed to fund an adequate education with fair and equitable taxation.
Still, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the current formula for calculating state school aid is outdated and insufficient. As education costs rise dramatically, so does the burden on taxpayers in many communities, but there is little consensus about how to address this.
A state commission lead by Democratic lawmakers last year recommended significant changes to the state's school funding formula, but none of the bills proposing some of these changes - including a redistribution of statewide property taxes - have garnered widespread support in the Republican-led State House.