NH districts get support after ruling

A decision to eliminate the state cap for education adequacy funding will mean the amount of money passed from the state to local communities will better support growing districts, but it won’t mean any additional funds for districts with declining or stable enrollment, such as in Nashua.

The Sullivan County Superior Court in Newport ruled Tuesday the state cap of education adequacy funding is unconstitutional, and ordered the state to pay the city of Dover $1.5 million – money it was shortchanged due to the cap, imposed in 2010. During the case, New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster’s office agreed that the cap violated the state constitution.

While Dover advocated for back payments from money it says was lost to the cap between 2010 and 2015, Tucker denied that portion of the lawsuit and ordered payment only for the 2015 fiscal year. The ruling opens the door for 40 other communities to seek payments for last year, putting the state’s liability at $11 million. In addition to the city of Dover, locally, the town of Bedford may have lost out on more than $4 million in adequacy funding last year.

"It really boils down to how the state calculates adequacy aid," said Adam Steel, business administrator for the Amherst School District and former business head of the Windham School District. "The state changed the formula … and as a result of that, some communities and districts didn’t receive all the money they were supposed to," Steel said.

"The state is required to pay for adequate education with ‘adequacy aid,’" he said, noting that the base adequacy aid per student is $3,561.

"But a number of years ago, some communities were losing their student population – they were getting less and less in the school districts, and theoretically, those districts should be receiving less money," he said. "The legislature decided that wasn’t fair and gave them a ‘stabilization grant,’ based on the amount they received from the state in 2012.

"Communities like Manchester, Rochester, Derry and Nashua receive a lot more – an extra $4 million in Manchester, and Nashua got $8 million more based on the formula and stabilization grant," he said.

"That money had to come from somewhere, and a lot of that money came from Bedford, Windham and Dover," Steel said, noting that the districts losing out were the ones gaining students but hitting the state imposed cap of 108 percent. "They could only receive 108 percent of what they received the year before."

Dover, for instance, received $1.4 million less than it should have for the past year, he said.

"Dover was supposed to receive $9 million but got $7.6 million – hence the lawsuit," he said.

The cap limited the amount of funding each district received to cover the cost of an adequate education and was a result of a Claremont lawsuit in the 1990s, which first established the constitutional requirement that the state pay for an adequate education.

One of the lawyers from the Claremont case, Andru Volinsky, also represented Dover in the recent lawsuit.

Dan Donovan, chief operating officer of Nashua School District Business Services, said it isn’t immediately clear whether the result of the lawsuit will mean anything for Nashua schools.

"We’re in a different situation than Dover," Donovan said in a Friday phone interview. "Dover received less funds than the calculation showed they should receive."

For the last school year, the Nashua district received $35 million in a state adequacy grant, $4.7 million of which was from the stabilization piece of the calculation, he said. "I don’t think the ruling means anything right now in Nashua – Dover is in the exact opposite position of us," Donovan said.

"It’s really about the number of students coming and going from the school district, especially the bigger, urban areas – they needed the most money to stay whole," Steel said. "Communities like Windham, Bedford and Dover were getting a lot less, and that’s why Dover filed the lawsuit. And the attorney general’s office, which is supposed to defend the state in the case, agreed."

Because the attorney general’s office agreed with the schools, House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, and Senate President Chuck Morse, stepped up on behalf of the state.

"Sen. Morse and Speaker Jasper intervened to defend legislative actions in the case – which is very rare," Steel said. He noted that the state Legislature had indicated plans to remove the adequacy aid cap in the next couple of years anyway.

Tina Forbes can be reached at 5946402, tforbes@nashuatelegraph. com or @Telegraph_TinaF.