DERRY — A month after Gov. Chris Sununu presented a roughly $7 million ceremonial check for state education and municipal aid to the town of Derry, the Derry Cooperative School District has signed onto a New Hampshire Supreme Court brief expressing support for a lawsuit that declares the state’s school funding formula to be unconstitutional.
School board chair Dan McKenna said the board voted unanimously to sign an amicus brief to be written by attorney John Tobin during Tuesday night’s meeting. The decision expresses support for the lawsuit, but does not make the Derry School District a party to it.
He said Derry is a unique community in regards to how the state funding formula impacts resident tax bills, and thought it was important that the school district’s voice be heard in the matter.
“When people think of school funding issues, they often think of smaller towns in northern New Hampshire,” McKenna said. “But Derry being in southern New Hampshire and one of the largest school districts in the state, shows that this issue affects people across New Hampshire.”
Derry is inordinately affected by the school funding formula, McKenna said, because the town has low property values compared to the number of students it has. As a result, they have to set higher property tax rates to raise the same amount of money as other communities.
John Tobin is a school funding activist who was involved in the Claremont case.
Attorney Michael Tierney represents the ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester school districts in the lawsuit, which received a favorable ruling from a Cheshire County Superior Court judge. The state appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court in September.
In the past, the Derry school board and town council have been at odds over district finances, but even when they were in conflict, they agreed that the state funding arrangement needed to be improved.
McKenna said the amicus brief will touch on issues like local property taxes, which the original lawsuit did not focus on. He said the issue doesn’t just affect students and schools, but in Derry it affects all residents, including elderly community members on fixed incomes who are struggling to pay their property tax bills.
“It’s an issue that affects everyone,” McKenna said.
While the school board is seeking a better funding solution from the state, McKenna said it recognizes that it did receive more this year due to changes in the latest state budget, which led to the restoration of stabilization grants and $3.6 million for one year of fiscal capacity disparity aid.
On Oct. 8, Gov. Chris Sununu presented Derry officials with a ceremonial check totaling about $7 million, which included the new education funding, as well as some additional municipal aid.
“We appreciate that and the work of the legislature and the governor to add that aid, but I think this lawsuit is looking at sort of the long-term plan,” McKenna said.
The school board has been following the progress of the lawsuit since before it began. In August 2018, it received a presentation by Tobin about the pending suit. Tobin presented an update to the board Tuesday night.
During the meeting, Tobin told board members that they will start working on drafting the brief in the next couple of months in anticipation of an early January deadline, which might get pushed out.
“What it will be is essentially to support the superior court’s decision and try to amplify it in some other ways where we think that decision has a few gaps,” Tobin told board members.
He said the recent changes in state law have not significantly reduced the burden on local property taxpayers. Before the change, in the 2017-2018 school year, Tobin said 61.5 percent of revenue to school districts in the state came from local property taxes. After the change, that was only reduced to 60.7 percent.