By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The latest lawsuit to claim the state fails to pay for a constitutionally adequate education will change venues.
ConVal and other school districts originally filed the suit in Cheshire County Superior Court where Superior Court Judge David Ruoff ruled in 2019 the state failed to meet its constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education.
Both the state and the plaintiffs appealed the case to the state Supreme Court. which agreed with the decision in part, reversed the decision granting summary judgment and awarding legal fees, and sent the case back to superior court to determine the disputed facts in the case.
However, in a Superior Court order issued last month, the case has been transferred to Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood, where Ruoff is now primarily assigned.
In the order it notes, Ruoff “spent an extensive amount of time in the past three years familiarizing himself with the file in this matter and research and issuing prior orders. The court finds that keeping the case assigned to undersigned counsel is in the past best interests of justice.”
The order was approved by Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau.
The trial, currently scheduled to begin Jan. 9, 2023, will be held in Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood and pleadings will be filed at that court, according to the order.
The court has set a May 9, 2022 deadline for the school districts to file their list of expert witnesses and reports, while the state will have until Aug. 2, 2022.
All discovery must be completed by Aug. 2, 2022 as well. The trial is expected to run for 15 days.
The plaintiffs, which now include 19 school districts including Manchester, Oyster River and several that brought the Claremont education lawsuit, claim the state’s adequacy aid grant of $3,708 per student falls far short of what it costs to educate a student. The average cost per pupil for the state is about $17,000 per student, but includes such things as transportation, which the state claims is not included in adequate education costs.
The superior court will be asked if transportation costs and similar expenditures involving student-teacher ratios, school nurses and administrators, and building maintenance and operational costs should be included in the cost of an adequate education.
The Supreme Court order noted it needed those and other disputed issues settled by the superior court to determine if the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every student an adequate education and to pay for it.
“We agree that resolving this fact-driven dispute is a prerequisite for determining whether the amount of funding set forth in RSA 198:40-a, II(a) is sufficient to deliver the opportunity for an adequate education,” Associate Justice Patrick Donovan wrote in the court’s May 23 decision.
In 1990, the state Supreme Court ruled the state had to provide each student with an adequate education and to pay that cost.
A later ruling declared the then current education funding system of local property taxes with widely varying rates unconstitutional, saying it violates the constitutional requirement that taxes be proportional and reasonable.
There have been several other cases brought against the state claiming lawmakers have not adequately answered the court’s two Claremont rulings, including one brought by “donor communities” and another by Londonderry and several other school districts.
Last year, an education funding commission issued a final report revamping the way the state determines what is an adequate education and ways to fund education costs more equitably.
The commission found that students from schools with poorer tax bases and higher poverty did not perform as well on educational outcomes as students from property rich communities that could more easily fund education costs.
Several commission members introduced a number of bills to enact some of the report’s findings into the 2021 Legislative session, but none were approved.
Instead, the legislature reduced the amount of state aid going to school districts from the year before and reduced the targeted aid to help property poor communities.
The Legislature also approved revamping the state law defining an adequate education adding more specifics to the statute.
Lawmakers also approved “education freedom accounts” which allow parents to remove their children from public schools and receive the state aid for their child to help pay private or religious school tuition, homeschooling or alternative education programs. Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org