Education funding: Judge's order spotlights a debate that never went away

Students work on algebra skills Friday in teacher Lance Flamino’s class at ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough. The education-funding lawsuit filed by four school districts, including ConVal, wanted the courts to set a new base amount for the state to contribute to communities.

KEENE — After winning an initial victory in their lawsuit against the state, ConVal, Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic school districts are going back to court and seeking close to $3 million to cover transportation costs.

Lawyer Michael Tierney filed a motion to reconsider in Cheshire County Superior Court in Keene on Wednesday asking Judge David Ruoff to award the money.

“Because the state is constitutionally obligated to fund the actual transportation costs of each school district and petitioners’ actual transportation costs are uncontroverted, the court erred by failing to order injunctive relief compelling the state to fund the actual costs of transportation in ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock, and Winchester for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 and declaratory relief that the failure to fully fund transportation would be unconstitutional,” the motion states.

The motion doesn’t stop with transportation funding.

Tierney is also asking that the state law setting out the education funding grants be declared unconstitutional, that the state be ordered to pay more for teacher benefits, and that Gov. Chris Sununu and Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut not be allowed to withdraw from the lawsuit.

Ruoff already sided with the districts in a ruling issued last week, in which he found the state is violating the constitution in failing to provide adequate funding for an education. Ruoff declined to order that specific monies be awarded, ruling that any solution most come from the Legislature.

“(The funding formula is) not only unsupported by the legislative record but [is] clearly or demonstratively inadequate according to the Legislature’s own definition of an adequate education,” Ruoff ruled.

The districts are seeking to have the state education grants increase from $3,636 per pupil to about $10,000 per pupil. That increase reflects the true cost of educating children in these districts, according to the lawsuit. ConVal’s per-pupil cost is around $18,000.

In his motion, Tierney writes that ConVal spends more than $900 per pupil each year on transportation costs alone. Winchester spends about $960, Monadnock more than $1,000, and Mascenic more than $600.

The state had argued that transportation costs are not part of an adequate education, and should not be included in the funding. Tierney, however, noted that the state funding formula actually includes money for transportation, though at a much lower rate than is actually spent by districts.