Kindergarten suit on hold – for now

HUDSON – Come March 10, voters will answer part one of this year’s most talked-about ballot question: Should the school district implement half-day public kindergarten for the 2009-10 school year?

Part two, however, is much more complicated: If voters say “no,” then what?

Deputy state Attorney General Anne Edwards said state officials are pretty much in a “wait-and-see” holding pattern.

“The state hasn’t made a decision on what we’ll do if Hudson votes (kindergarten) down,” she said last week. “We just don’t know. . . . I’m sure we’ll be discussing it as soon as we know how the vote turns out.”

In Hudson, the next step would be a little clearer.

“If kindergarten is voted down, we plan to pursue our lawsuit against the state,” School Board Chairman Dave Alukonis said after last week’s school Deliberative Session.

Hudson sued the state Department of Education last year, claiming the 2007 New Hampshire Supreme Court-ordered legislation requiring all districts to implement public kindergarten amounted to an unfunded mandate.

The district maintains that the legislation could be a violation of Article 28-A of the state Constitution, which prohibits the Legislature from mandating new programs or modifying existing programs without fully funding them. To date, all districts except Hudson have complied with the state’s kindergarten order.

While the state does provide kindergarten funding to cities and towns, Hudson claims the funding is inadequate to, as Alukonis stated recently, “do it the right way.”

That, according to the district’s amendment that put the issue on the March 10 ballot, would mean spending an estimated $1.23 million to have a half-day kindergarten program for 270 children up and running by this fall. Of that, Alukonis said, from $860,000 to $900,000 would go to operating expenses – those that would recur from year to year, such as teacher salaries and benefits, materials and transportation.

But state funding, which is based on $1,200 per pupil, would give Hudson $324,000 for operating expenses. The figure doesn’t include setup costs, which, the district estimates, would draw an additional $400,000 in state funds, mostly for purchase or lease of portable classrooms or construction of a new building or additions to existing schools.

“That leaves us with at least a $500,000 deficit in operating expenses the first year,” Alukonis said.

Further, he said, Hudson would need to pay all the costs up front, then recoup the funds from the state down the road.

“It’s all done after the fact,” he said. “We put up the portables or build additions, then (the state) reviews the work and decides on funding.”

Disputed claim

The size of the gap between state funding and the amount the school district claims is necessary for adequate kindergarten is the main point of the suit. But Edwards, the assistant attorney general, disputes Hudson’s claim that the state isn’t offering enough funding for new classroom space.

“It’s my understanding that they already have enough space,” Edwards said. “And the state does have money available to cities and towns if they need more space.”

Edwards said the Legislature enacted its funding formula after studying education data and crunching numbers for some time.

“The per-pupil expenditure that they came up with meets the definition of a constitutionally adequate education,” she said.

Edwards also said districts or school boards can always rearrange their budgets to supplement expenses such as kindergarten.

“There’s a difference between expenditures and costs,” she said. “The state’s responsibility is to determine the cost of adequate education. It doesn’t have any say in districts’ union contracts or raises, for instance, or the size of their budgets.

“Sometimes school boards will say (a program) costs more than what the state is paying,” Edwards said. “That’s what Hudson is doing with kindergarten.”

If kindergarten passes

While conventional wisdom says the lawsuit would most likely be dropped if voters approve kindergarten on March 10, Edwards isn’t all that sure.

“Well, that’s what the town’s attorney believes . . . but in my experience, people bringing lawsuits is always a possibility,” she said.

Edwards also indicated the state is prepared for the long haul in defending itself against Hudson’s suit.
“We don’t believe (Hudson) will be able to end this suit without going to trial,” she said. “What they need to prove is that the state’s funding isn’t adequate. To do that, they’ll need to bring in experts, go step by step, and that takes time.”

Superintendent Randy Bell estimates Hudson has spent $7,500 on the suit so far.

“How much we ultimately spend, however, depends on how far the process goes,” he said, speaking at the school district Deliberative Session in January. “Right now, I’d say that somewhere around $25,000 to $30,000 is a legitimate ballpark figure.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6523 or