Will new school-funding suit be an educational experience?
In what has become an annual rite of summer, the biggest losers in the State House struggle to solve school funding start a court battle. The latest entry is a 14-town, middle-wealth group of communities in the southern tier that has hired the Orr & Reno law firm for a constitutional challenge. Lead attorney Bill Chapman hopes to take a suit straight to the high court. “That would be our goal,” he said. “The statute (House Bill 616) does not pay for or define an adequate education, either by a money amount or by its components. The Supreme Court has made clear in the Claremont cases the state has an obligation to define that.” His clients have raised $160,000, including $30,000 each from Merrimack and Londonderry, which lose millions in revenue from school budgets voted in March. Andru Volinsky represents the coalition of plaintiff communities in the Claremont case, which launched these legal wars a decade ago. The Claremont case is still open, and the Supreme Court has blocked every effort to intervene in it. “But the court has original jurisdiction in some matters,” said Volinsky, who welcomed the new suit, especially with Chapman being named to lead it. “Bill is a fine lawyer, and I’m happy he’s involved,” Volinsky said. “I went to Bob Reno (the late co-founder of the Orr & Reno firm) for advice at the beginning of the Claremont case. He was one of the signatories to our first appeal to the Supreme Court.” Volinsky hoped the case would further educate voters to the constitutional duties at stake. He said that piece of news needs to percolate before the Legislature agrees to carry out the will of the court. “We’ve held off going back to the Supreme Court since 2001 because we’re waiting for more and more towns to form these coalitions,” Volinsky said. “You had Manchester and Rochester last year. Now Londonderry.” Londonderry School Board Chairman Steve Young hopes the Claremont plaintiffs will back this case. “We hope the outcome is fair to all students in the state,” Young said. “We’re looking at every option for funding education. People have accused us of looking for an income tax or sales tax, but I’m a libertarian and constitutionalist at heart. I spend the school district’s money like I spend my own — very frugally.” Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, welcomed this review of a key policy decision. “We’ll learn more about the latitude the court is willing to give the Legislature,” Kurk said. “We’ve chosen to help the poorest communities provide an adequate education at the same level of effort as everyone else. That’s a new direction, and some say it’s patently unconstitutional. But the court has made it clear we set policy.” Amherst has pledged $5,000 for the Londonderry suit. Deborah Cort, the school board chair, said she pretty much expected this year’s $600,000 loss in aid. Amherst drops from $4.3 million and eventually to $757,000 in aid. “Amherst would lose money no matter how the pie gets sliced,” Cort said. “But it has to be done fairly, and we need that funding for an adequate education. Once the Legislature comes up with a formula that’s equitable to everyone, then we can accept it.” No donor towns Sen. Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, introduced the last version of HB 616 just 90 minutes before it passed the Senate. It never went to a hearing, but a similar plan two years ago underwent six months of scrutiny. It died when former Attorney General Peter Heed said he could not defend it. The law eliminates the donor status of towns like Rye and Waterville Valley by dropping the statewide school tax to $2.84 per thousand. The only donor town left is tiny Hebron. The plan targets aid to low-income, property-poor towns like Franklin and Pittsfield. Gatsas said no formula would please more than 200 towns, but this one is no less constitutional than others. “It builds a single school district of the whole state and helps every town get up to the average (ability to pay for schools),” said Gatsas. “That sounds like a fair way to pay for education to me.” Rep. Fran Wendelboe, R-New Hampton, served on the budget conference committee that funded the school plan. “Towns like Amherst and Bow lose out,” she said. “But the Claremonts and Berlins get more money. That was the whole issue in the Claremont decisions.” Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, hopes the high court holds lawmakers’ feet to the fire. “I know we’re in a climate that prefers targeting aid,” she said, “but I’m a firm believer the state has an obligation to pay for every child in the state.” But Sen. Bob Letourneau, R-Derry, sees it differently. “We only have a pot so big, and the plaintiffs want a bigger pot,” he said. “The public has spoken loud and clear against an income or sales tax. Nobody gets elected supporting those.”