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Judge in Finance Suit Takes Firsthand Look at Schools

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Judge George Manias hit the road last week, visiting a dozen New Hampshire schools before he stops to hear the latest round of a school-finance lawsuit.

The tour by the Merrimack County Superior Court judge included stops in Claremont, Franklin, Gilford, Lisbon, and Pittsfield. The visits came on the recommendation of the state attorney general's office. A new trial opens this week in Concord.

Five districts with low property values filed suit against the state in 1991, charging that it failed to provide adequate and equitable funding.

Although other states have wider gaps between high- and low-spending districts, New Hampshire ranks last in the share of school funding that comes from the state. State appropriations pay only about 7 percent of the cost of education; most states foot about 50 percent of the bill.

Judge Manias dismissed the 1991 suit, ruling that the state did not have a constitutional duty to pay for education. But in 1994, the state supreme court overturned his decision. The high court found that the state is obligated to provide an adequate education for all educable children, and it sent the tax-equity question back to the trial court. (See Education Week, Jan.12, 1994.)

Peeling Paint

As a prelude to the opening of the finance trial, state officials defending the current system suggested the judge take a firsthand look at the condition of schools and disparities between districts.

The tour "shows it's a mistake to say there are the haves and have-nots. The divisions simply are not there," Leslie Ludtke, a senior assistant attorney general, said. She said judges have made similar visits for environmental suits.

Agreeing to get out of the courthouse, Judge Manias asked the plaintiffs and the state to each select six schools.

Among the schools he visited was Franklin High School, which was built in the 1930s. Paint is peeling throughout the building, and some broken windows are patched with duct tape. The school's basketball teams cannot play in the gymnasium because heavy use may cause the crumbling concrete foundation to break down, officials there said.

Observers are not sure what impression the visits will leave. Even some educators in wealthier school districts said they are convinced that the state's funding system thwarts poor districts.

George Cushing, the principal of Rye Junior High School, has worked in both wealthy and poorer school districts. He sees the fact that his well-to-do school has more classroom aides for special-education students and smaller class sizes than its less-affluent counterparts as a function of the state's funding system.

"It should not matter what town you go to school in," he said. "There should be some basic things in place."

But Ms. Ludtke of the attorney general's office disagreed that the finance system is to blame.

"I don't think there are wealthy schools and poor schools," she said. "In some districts with a low tax base, you see schools that look very nice, and in some districts with a higher tax base you may find older schools."

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