New Hampshire Prepares for Battle Over School Financing

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New Hampshire's attorney general will argue that public education is a state and local responsibility but that the state is not obligated to ensure equal funding among school districts, an opinion some local school-board members are preparing to support in the lawsuit over the legality of the state's school-funding method.

In a document filed April 1 in Merrimack County Superior Court, the state contends that "public education is not a fundamental right" under provisions of the state constitution, according to James E. Townsend, an assistant state attorney general.

Some School Boards Disagree

"There's no discussion of a thorough and efficient school system" in the state constitution, and there is no requirement that the state provide equal funding among school districts, Mr. Townsend said.

However, seven school boards in "property-poor" districts disagree. They filed suit in January challenging the constitutionality of the state's heavy reliance on local property taxes to support the public school system.

About 85 percent of the schools' revenues come from local taxes, compared to a national average of about 42 percent.

In addition, New Hampshire is ranked last among the states in aid to public education. State aid this year amounts to less than 7 percent of the school districts' budgets, compared to the national average of about 48 percent.

So far, only one school district--Governor Wentworth Regional School District--has publicly criticized the lawsuit brought by the local school boards in "property-poor" districts. But according to Robert C. Smith, chairman of the Governor Wentworth school board, about seven board members from other school districts in the state have confided that they do not agree with the intent of the lawsuit.

"I don't think there's proof that more money will make better education," Mr. Smith said, adding that he opposes any "redistribution of wealth." He said the Governor Wentworth school board recently voted to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the state's position.

In addition, Mr. Smith said he will head a letter-writing campaign, with the approval of his board, to solicit support for the state's position from other school boards throughout the state.

"Everyone is not financially equal nor were we meant to be," said Mr. Smith, who said he views the lawsuit as a threat to local control of public schools. Also at issue, according to Mr. Smith, is the threat that should the property poor districts succeed with their lawsuit the state would be forced to levy sales and personal income taxes.

Sided with Poor Districts

Mr. Smith, whose school board is at odds with the New Hampshire School Boards Association over its involvement in the lawsuit, recently voted to cancel its membership in the association. Although the state association's executive board agreed to remain neutral on the lawsuit, Mr. Smith claims it has sided with poor districts.

Mr. Smith, who is also a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, cited the affiliation of several members of the state school boards association with the Center for Educational Field Services, an organization which supplied much of the information contained in the the poor districts' suit. He said the association also refused to allow him to present opposing views during a public forum it sponsored on school-finance issues.

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