N.H. School-Finance Ruling Appealed After Judge Finds System Acceptable

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Five school districts in New Hampshire are appealing to the state supreme court after a superior court judge upheld the state's school finance system.

A notice of appeal was filed in the New Hampshire Supreme Court earlier this month by the Claremont Lawsuit Coalition--five poor school districts that launched the suit against then-Gov. Stephen Merrill in 1991.

The districts have argued that New Hampshire, which spends far less than any other state on public education, is violating the state constitution by not providing an adequate education or sufficient school funding.

Because local property taxes generate roughly 90 percent of education funding in the state, there are significant disparities between districts.

Children in the poorer schools don't have the same opportunities and are not as successful as those in areas with a richer tax base, the plaintiffs' lawyers argued.

But Merrimack Superior Court Judge George L. Manias saw things differently.

Judge Manias originally dismissed the case in 1992. But the coalition successfully appealed that decision to the supreme court, forcing the judge to hear the case.

After a seven-week trial earlier last year which detailed the plight of New Hampshire's poorest schools, Judge Manias issued his decision on Dec. 6. He ruled that the districts failed to prove that the state is not fulfilling its responsibility and that the courts need to step in.

He noted, however, that his ruling "should not be construed as a judicial endorsement of the current public school system, its method of funding, or the operation of the department of education."

Those matters are for the governor and the legislature to address, he wrote.

Thomas Hersey, a spokesman for the coalition, said he wasn't surprised by the verdict.

"We had to expect it. Any time you take on the state, it's tough," he said.

Governor May Tackle System

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a former teacher and a Democrat who took office this month, signaled during her campaign that she was interested in discussing a settlement with the plaintiffs.

Todd Quinn, her press secretary, said last week that regardless of the case, she still wants to increase state education aid.

"Governor Shaheen is going to pay more attention to education issues" than Mr. Merrill did, Mr. Hersey added.

Leslie J. Ludtke, the associate attorney general who argued the case before Judge Manias, said that simply boosting state funding won't erase the inequities between districts.

"You have to be blind not to see that there are disparities and differences," she said. "Differences will be present in any system that has a local component to it."

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