Judge rules adequate education requires $7,356 per student

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Nov. 20—The state's current levels of funding for public schools is unconstitutionally low, a Rockingham County Superior Court judge ruled Monday, saying an adequate education costs several thousand dollars more per pupil than the $4,100 the state provides.

Judge David Ruoff ruled that the minimum cost of an education is $7,356 per student. For schools to be funded at that level, education spending would have to be increased $538 million.

"The true cost is likely much higher than that," Ruoff wrote in the 56-page order.

The decision followed a three-week bench trial in April of a 2019 suit brought by ConVal Regional School District and 17 other school districts against Gov. Chris Sununu and state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut over both the interpretation of an adequate education and how much the state contributes toward it.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled the ConVal lawsuit could proceed and ordered Ruoff to define an adequate education.

Ruoff also ruled that the way the state administers the Statewide Education Property Tax (SWEPT) violated the state's constitution. The decision was made in a separate lawsuit challenging the varying tax burdens across New Hampshire to pay for education.

In response to Ruoff's ruling on education funding, Gov. Sununu said, "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."

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, whose district sued the state along with ConVal, took the opposite tack.

The decision "reaffirms what we've long known: the State of New Hampshire is not living up to its responsibility to adequately fund public education, said Craig, who is running for the Democratic Party's nomination for governor.

Adequate cost

During the ConVal suit trial, educators argued the cost per student is about $10,000.

The adequacy aid jumped from $3,561 per pupil to $4,100 on July 1, according to the decision.

Kimberly Rizzo Saunders, superintendent for the Peterborough-based ConVal School District, was the lead witness in the suit. She said she started looking at the number in 2015.

Ruoff's ruling included a chart prepared by Rizzo Saunders.

"Dr. Rizzo Saunders concluded that base adequacy aid should be funded at $9,929 excluding transportation," he wrote.

The ruling considers teacher salaries, benefits, teacher-to-student ratios, non-teacher employee costs, instructional materials, technology and professional development.

The districts said the state's adequacy grant fails to cover essentials such as a lunch program, transportation, school nurses and a superintendent. Other superintendents provided similar calculations.

"Based on the evidence the plaintiffs presented at trial, the Court is persuaded that the costing methodology employed by Dr. Rizzo Saunders is a reliable way to determine the requisite level of base adequacy aid funding," Ruoff said.

Ruoff set the baseline at $7,356, but the "Legislature should have the final word." He said the $7,356 would allow the Legislature to "meaningfully consider and appropriately respond to the relevant issues."

The bench trial came 30 years after the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that state government is responsible for defining and funding an adequate education.

Second case

A separate lawsuit was filed by a trio of taxpayers in Plymouth and Penacook challenging the statewide education property tax (SWEPT). It claimed some communities shoulder an unfair burden.

The court held a hearing on July 12.

The lawsuit claimed the funds are not being "administered in a manner that is 'uniform in rate,'" Ruoff said.

The lawsuit contended that by allowing property-rich communities to retain excess SWEPT funds, the state effectively reduces the SWEPT rate paid by those communities.

"In this case, the existing education funding and tax scheme permits communities to retain surplus SWEPT funds which exceed local adequacy aid needs. As a result, such funds are not remitted to the State for use in meeting the adequacy aid needs of other communities where SWEPT revenues fall short of adequacy," the ruling reads.

Beginning in the budget cycle starting in late-2023 the state is "enjoined from permitting" communities to retain excess SWEPT funds, according to the ruling. Communities also may no longer carry a negative local tax rate.

The judge rules that any SWEPT funds generated in excess of the adequacy aid to which any community is statutorily entitled must be remitted to the Department of Revenue Administration, and be used for the exclusive purpose of satisfying the state's constitutional obligations.

The deadline to file a motion to reconsider for both lawsuits was extended to 30 days.