By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu’s office responded to a judge’s ruling that New Hampshire’s method of funding education is unconstitutional by saying it should be left to local elected officials, not something for the courts to decide.
But Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, a Democrat, said Sununu is walking a political tightrope as a result of Cheshire Superior Court Judge David Ruoff’s order.
Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt said the office is still reviewing Wednesday’s order. “But we continue to believe these critical funding decisions are best left to local elected leaders — who represent the people of New Hampshire — not judges in a court room.
“For more than 20 years, New Hampshire has grappled with how best to determine education funding, which is why Governor Sununu has supported efforts to alleviate the burdens of property-poor towns by supporting targeted school building aid and the concept of stabilization grants.”
As to the governor’s position, Grenier, a Democrat, said, “Politically, he’s walking a tightrope. Either he will have to compromise with the House or risk looking like he is anti-education and anti-children.”
Grenier said the ruling may not help in the short-term. “But in the long-term it really helps all property-poor communities like Berlin,” Grenier said.
Berlin wasn’t a party to the recent lawsuit, but Grenier has been aggressively lobbying lawmakers to adequately fund education pointing out the dire consequences of the current funding formula to towns like Berlin. The last elementary school in the city, Brown Elementary School, is set to close at the end of the school year.
The lawsuit was filed in March by ConVal, Winchester, Mascenic and Monadnock school districts against the state, Gov. Sununu, and Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut challenging the state’s funding of an adequate education, which Ruoff noted in his order is a fundamental right under the New Hampshire Constitution.
State funding of education has been the subject of continuing debate since the state Supreme Court ruled on the well-known school funding lawsuit known as Claremont two decades ago, but the state still has never fully funded an adequate education.
This year, the issue has received a lot more publicity as property poor municipalities struggle to balance their budgets.
Community and education leaders and the New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project led by Andru Volinsky, John Tobin and Doug Hall have criss-crossed the state holding dozens of public forums to explain the education funding system and its impacts on students and property taxpayers.
Ruoff said state law sets the current base adequacy aid award for all schools at $3,562.71 per student, based on a formula determined by a legislative committee in 2008.
“Because of the dearth of evidence in the legislative record to support such a determination, the Court finds RSA 198:40-a,II(a)—which is essentially the gateway to an adequate education in New Hampshire—unconstitutional as applied to the Petitioning school districts.”
Ruoff said he was “simply unable to fathom a legitimate governmental purpose to justify the gross inequities in educational opportunities evident from the record…
“The distribution of a resource as precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child’s residence. It requires no particular constitutional expertise to recognize the capriciousness of such a system.”
Ruoff concluded that it is up to the Legislature to take action.
“As every court decision on the matter has recognized, school funding is no small task, and the burden on the Legislature is great. Yet, as every court decision has similarly recognized, the Legislature is the proper governmental body to complete it. As has been the result in the past, the Court expects the Legislature to respond thoughtfully and enthusiastically to funding public education according to its constitutional obligation,” Ruoff wrote.
House Majority Leader Douglas Ley, D-Jaffrey, said the ruling reiterates the fact that New Hampshire has consistently failed to properly fund public schools, putting an even bigger spotlight on funding for education over the next biennium and beyond.
“The House budget proposal brings needed relief to school districts and property taxpayers over the next biennium while looking towards the next decade in establishing a commission that brings all stakeholders together to finally solve New Hampshire’s education funding crisis. As we approach the final stages of the budget process, House Democrats are committed to bring real relief to property taxpayers while ensuring every Granite State student has access to quality education,” Ley said.