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Judge Sets $7,300 Per Pupil State Funding Minimum in ConVal Ruling

Just days after a New Hampshire Department of Education report showing public school enrollment plunging amid spending hikes, a judge has ordered the state to pay even more.

Rockingham Superior Court Judge David Ruoff released his long-awaiting ruling in the ConVal education funding lawsuit on Monday, declaring the state must pay a per-pupil minimum state adequacy grant of $7,356. The net cost to state taxpayers would be nearly $538 million per year. And, Ruoff said, that’s likely just the beginning.

“What is the base cost to provide the opportunity for an adequate education 239 years after that fundamental right was ratified in our Constitution? The short answer is that the Legislature should have the final word, but the base adequacy cost can be no less than $7356.01 per pupil per year, and the true cost is likely much higher than that. At a minimum, this is an increase of $537,550,970.95 in base adequacy aid to New Hampshire Schools,” Ruoff wrote.

Ruoff wasn’t done. In a separate ruling in the Rand vs. State of New Hampshire case, Ruoff ruled that property-rich communities can no longer keep excess Statewide Education Property Taxes revenue in reserve. That practice allowed these communities to set a negative SWEPT tax rate.

Ruoff initially tried to avoid setting a number in the ConVal case. He ruled for ConVal in 2019, finding that the state’s education funding system results in an inadequate amount per pupil, and is therefore unconstitutional. However, he originally ruled that it is up to the legislature to determine the number, not a judge.

After the state appealed, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ordered Ruoff to hold a trial and determine what the cost per pupil ought to be. 

Ruoff’s order still faces a possible challenge from the state. Gov. Chris Sununu called Ruoff’s decision an overreach.

“New Hampshire currently spends among the most per capita on public education than nearly any other state. Today’s decision is deeply concerning and an overreach into a decades-long precedent appropriately placed in the hands of our elected representatives in Concord,” Sununu said.

New Hampshire Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut’s office declined to comment. Michael Garrity, communications director for New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella, said Ruoff’s decisions are being reviewed.

“We have received the court’s order. We will review it and consider potential next steps,” Garrity said.

But the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a pro-education-reform think tank, immediately blasted the premise of the judge’s ruling, noting that education spending in New Hampshire has exploded, even as the number of students in the k-12 fallen drastically.

“NH public schools are not ‘underfunded’ and have not experienced a decline in funding this century. On the contrary, as school district enrollment fell by 30,000, spending, adjusted for inflation, rose by nearly $1 billion,” the Barlett Center posted on X.

As for the judge’s arbitrary price of an “adequate” education, the center responded:

“Trying to figure out the true cost of an adequate education by measuring what monopoly school districts spend is like trying to figure out the true cost of package delivery by measuring Post Office prices before the arrival of FedEx and UPS. Markets, not judges, set prices.”

But Democrats, who’ve been pushing for more state spending for decades, were delighted.

State Sen. Democratic Caucus Leader Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) is ready to start charging. Ruoff’s decision will be the template she and other Democratic lawmakers will use going forward as they look to increase school spending to at least the $7,300 minimum,

“Our caucus will closely review the court decisions released today, and we will examine legislative action to ensure that a constitutional formula is enacted,” she said.

Zack Sheehan, the executive director of the left-leaning New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project, called the decisions big wins for students and property taxpayers. He said that the legislature’s refusal to fund education at the state level has pushed the bill down to local property taxes and burned homeowners.

“These are exciting rulings, but for their impact to be felt, the legislature has to get to work and bring our school funding statutes into line with this and all past school funding rulings,” Sheehan said. “The changes promised in the Claremont decisions have been denied to Granite Staters for too long already, so I want to see the state accept this ruling and not continue wasting time by appealing it to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.”

In actuality, New Hampshire hit a state-spending record on k-12 education in the current budget, while few communities cut their property taxes.

In deciding that $7,300 is the minimum adequate education amount, Ruoff used numbers provided by public school districts and the Department of Education. There was no data from public charter schools or private schools, Cline said. He added that it is like deciding what the price of a hamburger ought to be based on just the McDonald’s Big Mac while ignoring Burger King and Wendy’s.

“Markets, not judges, determine prices. That’s the fundamental flaw in this whole game. New Hampshire needs a market for educational services,” Cline said.

The ConVal and Rand lawsuits are the ideological, if not legal, sequels to the Claremont lawsuits of the 1980s and 1990s. In Claremont, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled all New Hampshire children have a constitutional right to an adequate education, and the state is on the hook to make sure that happens. The Supreme Court, however, left the funding details up to lawmakers.

The Peterborough-based Contoocook Valley Regional School District filed the lawsuit in 2018, arguing the state’s then-adequate education grant of $3,600 per pupil was far below the true cost and, therefore, was unconstitutional. ConVal and the dozens of school districts that joined the lawsuit wanted closer to $10,000 per pupil.

Since the ConVal suit was filed, lawmakers and Sununu bumped up the grants to $4,100 per pupil, an amount Ruoff still found unconstitutionally low. The total cost of education in New Hampshire, including the portion paid through local property taxes, averages just shy of $20,000 per pupil. 

The Rand lawsuit saw parents in property-poor towns challenging the way they claimed wealthier communities were able to game the SWEPT system, increasing the propeller of education funding inequality.

SWEPT accounts for 30 percent of education funding in New Hampshire. Under the law, as many as 30 wealthy Granite State communities keep a portion of the money raised through the SWEPT, while some poorer towns are paying more, according to the lawsuit.

 

Judge Recuses Himself From Ed Funding Case

Grafton Superior Court Judge Lawrence MacLeod is recusing himself from the state education funding lawsuit, saying the property he owns in one of the towns intervening in the case could create the perception of a conflict of interest.

MacLeod recused himself from the case in an order he released Wednesday before he had a chance to rule on the injunction. The plaintiffs are seeking to stop the state from setting a property tax rate for the coming year.

MacLeod and his wife own more than $1 million of property in the city of Lebanon, one of the communities trying to now intervene in the case as part of the Coalition of Communities. It is fighting the plaintiff’s injunction that seeks to keep the Statewide Education Property Tax, or SWEPT, rate at $0.

“The undersigned justice and his wife have a legal and/or beneficial interest in one residence, two rental properties, and two undeveloped lots in Lebanon with a combined property tax assessment in excess of $1,000,000,” MacLeod wrote.

The Coalition, formed in 2006, is made up of mostly towns and cities with high property values working against the return of a “donor” and “receiver” town system for education funding.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by Andru Volinsky, John Tobin, and Natalie Laflamme, claim the state continues to ignore the 1990s Claremont decisions issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court by using varying rates for the statewide property tax. They claim it punishes poor communities with lower property values.

The plaintiffs argued last week before MacLeod that New Hampshire cannot set any SWEPT rate for the coming year as the system is currently in violation of the Claremont rulings and flies in the face of the state constitution. Currently, property-rich towns that raise more in taxes through the SWEPT tax are allowed to keep the surplus.

After that hearing, the Coalition filed to intervene in the case and stop MacLeod from approving the injunction. Coalition attorney John-Mark Turner wrote that these would-be “donor” communities would face chaos and uncertainty and be forced to raise local property taxes if the plaintiffs prevail. They oppose changing the current system.

MacLeod’s recusal states that since he and his wife could potentially benefit from the Coalition’s efforts, he needed to step aside.

“(I)t appears that the undersigned justice and his spouse may enjoy a tax advantage under New Hampshire’s existing education taxation structure given the assessed values and fortuitous locations of their real properties not available to the plaintiffs and other real property owners similarly situated, such that the undersigned justice and his spouse would or could be placed at more than a de minimis economic disadvantage should the plaintiffs prevail in the case,” MacLeod wrote.

The SWEPT accounts for 30 percent of education funding in New Hampshire. Under the law, as many as 30 wealthier communities in New Hampshire are keeping a portion of the money raised through the SWEPT, while some poorer towns are paying more, according to the lawsuit.

SWEPT started in 1999 as a response to the Claremont decisions, which found that the state has a constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education. The money raised, more than $360 million estimated in the coming year, is used to fund state adequacy grants.

The debate is over the definition of “adequate.”

According to the plaintiffs, wealthy communities raise more funds per pupil through SWEPT than the state’s low standard for what it asserts is the cost of an “adequate” education. Further, since 2011, the state has allowed those wealthy towns to keep the surplus, which flies in the face of the Claremont decisions, according to the motion.

“The SWEPT tax as currently administered is not uniform in rate as the State allows towns with surplus SWEPT funds to either set a negative local education tax rate to offset the State’s official equalized SWEPT tax rate or retain the excess,” the plaintiff’s motions states. “Both of these mechanisms have been previously deemed unconstitutional by New Hampshire courts.”

MacLeod’s order states a new judge will be assigned to the case soon. It is not yet clear how much of a delay his recusal will add to the lawsuit’s timeline, or if the new judge will have to rehear the parties on the injunction against the SWEPT rate.