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Published in Print: August 31, 2005, as New Hampshire School Finance Plan Heads Back to Court

New Hampshire School Finance Plan Heads Back to Court

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Dissatisfied with lawmakers’ latest cut at writing a permanent school funding law, 19 New Hampshire towns and school districts are taking the state to court—again.

The new lawsuits are the latest in a finance saga that began in 1991, when five communities with low property values sued the state, charging that its method of paying for schools was unfair because it relied heavily on local property taxes. The state supreme court in 1997 agreed, striking down the funding system and ordering lawmakers to come up with a better one.

But every effort the state has made since then to devise a formula has met with opposition from unhappy towns and districts.

“Essentially, it’s the same story, just different players,” said Ted E. Comstock, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

This time, he said, the plaintiffs are mostly districts with higher property values in the southern half of the state, most of which stand to lose money under the funding law approved by lawmakers earlier in the summer. The new law targets more aid to poor districts, shrinks a controversial statewide property tax that was created to pay for schools, and reduces the number of communities that have to “donate” some of the tax money they collect to less prosperous districts.

What Is Adequate?

The problem is that the law ignores the state’s constitutional mandate to ensure that schools provide an “adequate” education, according to New Hampshire Communities for Adequate Funding, the coalition of 18 towns that filed the most recent of two school funding lawsuits against the state.

“One last time, we’d like legislators to take a look at this and determine what is an adequate education and determine an equitable way to fund that,” said Stephen E. Young, a coalition founder and the chairman of the Londonderry school board. His 5,700-student district stands to lose $2.5 million under the new funding system.

But it’s not just about the money, Mr. Young said. His group wants to force lawmakers to find a long-term solution to the state’s school finance woes. The continual changes in state laws on the matter have wreaked havoc with local district budgets every year for at least the past three years, according to New Hampshire school board members.

“We’re not necessarily interested in bouncing out the existing law,” Mr. Young added.

In contrast, Nashua, the other southern New Hampshire school district that has brought suit, is calling for a stop-payment on aid that the state is scheduled to begin doling out to schools in September under the new formula. In its lawsuit, which is separate from the coalition’s, officials of the 13,280-student district argue that state officials incorrectly used 2002 property valuations to determine how much money towns should receive.

Vol. 25, Issue 01, Page 26

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