KEENE — New Hampshire is willfully ignoring its own data when it comes to funding education, leading to chronic underfunding of school districts throughout the state, says Michael Tierney, the attorney representing Contoocook Valley Regional School District in its lawsuit against the state.
“The state has in the past and intends in the future to fail to fully fund an adequate education,” Tierney said Friday morning during arguments in the Cheshire Superior Court in Keene.
In theory, Judge David Ruoff could have ruled Friday to grant ConVal and the Winchester School District’s injunction against the state and award the districts millions of dollars in adequacy funding. In reality, Friday’s hearing set the stage for what may be a lengthy legal battle.
ConVal filed the lawsuit earlier this month, claiming that the state has underfunded education since the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled — as part of the Claremont lawsuits in the 1990s — that a state-funded adequate education is a fundamental constitutional right.
Currently, the state grants $3,636 per pupil to most districts in the state.
Tierney argued that the amount is the result of the Legislature using bad numbers for the funding formula. Using the state’s data, Tierney claims that the adequacy grants for ConVal and Winchester should be close to $10,000 per student.
“It’s not rational for the state to ignore its own data,” Tierney said.
The state has claimed as part of its defense that things like transportation costs and facility costs are not part of an adequate education, and should not be included in the funding.
Tierney, however, said Friday that the state funding formula actually includes money for transportation and facilities, though at a much lower rate that is actually spent by districts.
Tierney said the state funds $195 per pupil for transportation and facilities, while New Hampshire Department of Education data show the average cost is about $1,400 per pupil.
“(New Hampshire) needs to apply its formula using real data,” Tierney said.
New Hampshire Solicitor General Dan Will argued that even if the state is wrong, Ruoff does not have the authority to intervene. Any change to the funding formula must come from the Legislature, Will said.
“It is up to the Legislature, not the courts, to decide adequate education funding,” Will said.
The case will likely now be scheduled for depositions and evidentiary hearings, leading up to a trial on the merits.