By Barbara Tetreault
BERLIN — Twenty-five school districts across the state, including Berlin, have thrown their support behind the latest school funding lawsuit now before the state Supreme Court.
The districts, along with the N.H. School Boards Association, on June 26 filed a 47-page brief supporting the lawsuit and its position that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund education. The brief asks that the legislature be required to come up with a solution by July 1, 2021 and “end the injustice and unfairness that continue to afflict our school children and our taxpayers.”
During a conference call last Wednesday, Attorney John Tobin said the inequity of the funding system has gone backwards since the state Supreme Court ruled in the 1990’s that the state had to provide an adequate education for students in grades K-12. Tobin, who was one of lawyers on the original lawsuit, said the state now covers less than a third of education costs. Attorney Natalie Laflamme, a Berlin High graduate, said she was four years old when the first suit was filed and the issue played out over her entire public school career.
The brief focuses heavily on the disparity in property tax rates among municipalities because of the state’s funding formula and especially the burden on property poor communities like Berlin.
A community like Portsmouth, with a high property valuation ( or a property wealthy district) can raise money to fully fund its school system while keeping taxes relatively low. Berlin, with one of the lowest overall valuations, has a high school tax rate and is forced to cut other budgets to fund education. The brief cites NH. Department of Education figures showing that for the 2018-19 school year Berlin’s total school tax was $17.42 compared to $6.48 for Portsmouth.
“The result is that the property-poor districts must impose local school taxes at much higher rates than their property-wealthy counterparts, but even when they do so, they cannot afford to support their schools at the level that property- wealthy districts can,” the brief states.
Berlin was forced to close a school building last year and consolidated grades in two buildings. But it is not the only property poor community struggling to fund education. Claremont School Board Chair Frank Sprague said his city has the highest tax rate in the state and has had to make cuts and consolidate in an effort to avoid cutting opportunities for its students. He said the school district also finds that it recruits teachers only to see them leave for districts where salaries are 20 to 30 percent higher.
Winnisquam Regional School Board Chair Jasen Stock said the three towns that make up his district have different school tax rates ranging from $10.74 to $12.37. He said the disparity creates a difficult environment to budget and do long-term planning.
“We do know we can’t keep raising taxes on those who can least afford it,” said Hopkinton School Board Chair Jim O’Brien.
If the state wants to be competitive in attracting workers to New Hampshire, Nashua School Board Chair Heather Raymond said young families look at the education system. Keeping up with other states requires making education a priority in the state budget added Manchester School Vice Chair Leslie Want.
Contoocook Valley School District, joined by three other school districts, sued the state in Cheshire Superior Court back in March 2019, arguing the state does not meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund education for all school districts. The court sided with the school districts and found the current school funding formula unconstitutional. The state appealed the case to Superior Court and the school district followed with a cross appeal.
In the last two decades, the state Supreme Court has twice ruled in favor of school districts on the issue of school funding but the legislature has never followed fully followed through. Tobin was asked why he thought a favorable decision this time would bring a different result.
In previous years, Tobin said school funding advocates earned legal victories but didn’t get the political support. This time, he said they are working to build that support. He pointed to a series of forums on school funding that were held throughout the state over the past year. And he pointed out the brief also asks the court to set a July 2021 deadline.
The legislature has established a commission to perform a detailed study of school funding and its report is due Aug. 1
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in support of the school districts while State Senators Harold French and Robert Giuda and Representatives Gregory hill, Carol McGuire, and Andrew Renzullo filed in opposition to the school districts.