3 plaintiffs sue NH over school funding burden on local taxpayers
|Published: 07-06-2022 10:23 AM
NORTH HAVERHILL — Attorneys who led the Claremont school-funding lawsuits in the 1990s that established a constitutional right to an adequately funded education have filed a new lawsuit against the state, asking the court to direct the state to replace its current education funding system.
Andru Volinsky and John Tobin, who represented five school districts, including Claremont in the landmark lawsuits, along with attorney Natalie Laflamme filed a the suit on June 28 in Grafton County Superior Court. Filed on behalf of three New Hampshire plaintiffs, the attorneys claim that New Hampshire’s school funding system remains unconstitutional and inequitable 25 years after the New Hampshire Supreme Court directed the state to design an equitable funding system.
Unlike the ongoing ConVal lawsuit — a multidistrict lawsuit against the state over the state’s inadequate funding to local schools — this new suit focuses specifically on the funding inadequacy’s impact on property taxpayers, as opposed to schools themselves, Volinsky told the Valley News.
“We are trying to show that (New Hampshire’s funding allotment of) $4,000 per child does not pay for an adequate education, and when that amount is not sufficient people have to rely on local property taxes, (which) communities are paying at very differing rates,” Volinsky said.
In New Hampshire, 62% of school funding comes from local property taxes, with the state contributing only 28% from its own revenue sources. New Hampshire’s state contribution to education is the lowest percentage in the country, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.
New Hampshire’s funding formula includes a base cost of approximately $3,708.78 per pupil plus additional stipends to assist students identified with additional learning needs, such as a learning disability or poverty-based issues.
According to the New Hampshire Department of Education (NHDOE), the state’s total per pupil contribution was approximately $4,597 per pupil in the 2020-2021 school year.
However, the average cost per pupil in New Hampshire public school that year was $18,434.21, which does not include additional expenses such as transportation or capital expenses of debt service, according to the suit.
In addition to the state’s contribution being “woefully insufficient” to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to fund “an adequate education,” the employment of municipal property taxes to fund the majority of New Hampshire’s schools violates the state Supreme Court’s ruling in 1997, which requires taxes levied on local communities be “equal in valuation and uniform in rate throughout the State,” according to the complaint.
In 1997, the second of two Claremont lawsuits against the state, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the state’s education funding system was unconstitutional and ordered the state to design a new and more equitable funding system “within 17 months.”
The plaintiffs contend that the state has still failed to create a funding system that meets those constitutional requirements.
“Because of the great disparities in property wealth among school districts, these local taxes are levied at rates that vary widely from school district to school district, thus imposing disproportionate tax rates on property owners across the state,” the suit states.
Volinsky noted that high local tax rates for education correlate to low-property values, as opposed to the actual amount spent on schools.
Ten percent of the state’s contribution to school districts comes from SWEPT, or Statewide Education Property Tax, a supplemental equalized tax rate based in part on each town’s assessed valuation.
In actuality, the state does not collect any money from this state tax. The school districts keep the money from this tax in their district. While the rates themselves are similar across New Hampshire communities, generally ranging from $1.70 to $2.40 per $1,000 of assessed value, the actual amount of money raised from SWEPT depends on a town’s assessed valuation.
The town valuations vary dramatically, according to data from the NHDOE. In the 2020-21 school year, Claremont had the lowest equalized value, of $523,285 per pupil, whereas Moultonborough, N.H., a town bordering Lake Winnipesaukee in Carroll County, had a town valuation of $8,987,902 per pupil.
Steven Rand, one of the petitioners in the suit, lives in the Grafton County town of Plymouth, N.H., whose equalized value of $942,652 in 2020-2021 was only 70% of the state average, according to the suit. Five years earlier Plymouth’s value of $939,001 per pupil was 88% of the average, which indicates “how Plymouth has lost ground over time” with other communities.
Dr. Robert Gabrielle, and Adam and Jessica Russell, also petitioners in the suit, live in Penacook, N.H., a village of Concord.
Penacook, which is part of the Merrimack Valley School District, has “a much lower equalized valuation per pupil than the rest of the city of Concord, of which Penacook is a part for all purposes except for public education,” according to the suit.
In 2020-21, Penacook had a valuation of $654,006, 48.6% of the state average and 57% of the equalized valuation per pupil for the rest of Concord.
All the plaintiffs in this suit are commercial business owners as well as residents, Volinsky said, adding that their dual-role creates an additional disadvantage for them because they are paying taxes on multiple properties.
The Valley News reached out to the office of New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, but the office said that Edelblut declined to comment on an active lawsuit.
Patrick Adrian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.