OSSIPEE — Selectmen are telling the state of New Hampshire to mark "zero dollars" for Ossipee's local school tax rate because they believe education is the state's responsibility.
Meanwhile, the local school district is threatening to sue the town for failing to pay its bills.
The town of Ossipee is served by the Governor Wentworth School District and SAU 49. Its designated high school is Kingswood Regional in Wolfeboro.
The three members of the Ossipee Board of Selectmen are Martha Eldridge, Sandra "Sam" Martin and Sue Simpson.
The board on Monday approved a letter to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration stating they believe that having the town do billing and collecting for local education runs counter to Article 5, Part 2 of the state Constitution. They cited a court case involving the town of Londonderry in 2006.
The letter closes by saying that although RSA Ch. 76:8 might authorize that, they find doing so to be unconstitutional. It asks the DRA to give them a tax rate of $0 per $1,000 of property value.
"This is a letter stating that we're going to stand our ground," said Martin. "We are not going to capitulate to the school board ... They are now saying they are going to take us to court. They are going to spend the children's educational funds taking us to court when they can't manage their own fiscal responsibility."
Peter Roth, revenue counsel for the DRA, told the Sun what selectmen are asking to do is "unprecedented."
In a follow-up email Friday, he said, "With respect to the local education taxes for the town, we receive information from and provide rates to the school board and not the select board. As a result, the commissioner cannot abide the select board’s request, and we will send to the school board an education tax rate as we are required to do by law.
"We also do not agree with the legal conclusions that are expressed in the select board’s letter, and simply recommend that they consult the town’s attorney."
On Monday, Martin moved for the letter to be signed. The motion passed 3-0 with little discussion.
The school district and selectmen also are at odds over the tax payment schedule for money from the town to the district.
The town wants to make equal monthly payments, while the district is asking the town to abide by its billing schedule.
An Oct. 17 letter from the district's legal counsel — Diane Gorrow of Soule, Leslie, Kidder, Sayward & Loughman — threatened to take the town to court.
"If the town does not commit to pay the district in accordance with the district's schedule, which includes paying the past due amounts and paying the amount due on Nov. 1, the district will have no choice but to file suit," the letter says. "In that action the district will ask the court to award the district its attorney fees and costs for having to file suit to secure a clearly defined right."
The letter said that by Nov. 1, the town needed to pay $1,107,560, which includes $572,004 that is "past due."
Governor Wentworth District Chairman Jack Widmer of Tuftonboro told the Sun that because this is a legal issue he couldn't comment.
Martin read Gorrow's letter aloud at the Oct. 21 selectmen's meeting. She then said Gorrow didn't cite any specific state laws to back up her argument.
"We are up to date as far as we're concerned," said Martin. "I think they need to manage their money better."
Selectmen were encouraged to take their stance on education funding by Gilmanton resident Joseph Haas, who spoke to selectmen on Sept. 30.
Haas told the selectmen that they had the legal right to contest the tax rate set by the state if it's set at anything other than zero dollars.
The Sun contacted Haas on Thursday to ask if that could cause a crisis.
"Yes, and especially if the State Legislature doesn't fix this right away," said Haas, who believes the situation could be solved by adjusting business taxes.
In September, Haas suggested the selectmen ask the Board of Tax and Land Appeals about the tax rate. But at the Oct. 7 meeting he said that the request should be going to the DRA.
As far as the payment schedule goes, Haas believes there is no "specific timetable" for the town to pay the district.
Haas said some of his information came from an education funding forum held in Wolfeboro in May. A speaker at that forum was Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, who is now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. His campaign website says he was the "lead lawyer in the Claremont School Funding cases that established the right to a state-funded public education"
The Sun asked Volinsky for his opinion on Haas.
"I generally think Joe is harmless and well-intentioned, but I don't think his effort makes sense and there is no need to give deep consideration to his legal advice," said Volinsky.
Selectmen and the school board will each hold scheduled meetings Monday.
Selecmen meet at 4:15 p.m.at town hall. The Governor Wentworth School District School Board is meeting at 7 p.m. at the New Durham School.