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Keene Sentinel on the ConVal suit: Judge denies preliminary injunction, sets hearing for June

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The Sentinel reports on yesterday’s decision by Judge Ruoff denying the ConVal injunction but committing to arrive at a decision on the merits of the districts’ case before the June 30 end of the fiscal year:

A judge on Friday denied a request from two local school districts for an immediate, multimillion-dollar increase in education funding from the state.

But, Judge David W. Ruoff held, that doesn’t necessarily bar the districts from seeking those funds before the fiscal year ends June 30.

The ConVal and Winchester school districts are suing the state in Cheshire County Superior Court, arguing that New Hampshire’s school funding levels fall unconstitutionally short of what it actually takes to educate a child….

The districts had sought a preliminary injunction that would have increased aid levels before April 1 — the date of the state’s final adequacy aid disbursement of the fiscal year. Their lawyer, Michael J. Tierney, has said he worried that if the districts did not receive the higher amount by April 1, they would never get those funds, because the state would argue it was too late.

Ruoff, in his order Friday, wrote that he could not upend the status quo without further proceedings.

“The Plaintiffs request significant alteration of the status quo and seek payment of more than $20 million,” Ruoff wrote. Approximately $2.8 million was due to them under the current funding structure, according to their lawsuit.

But just because April 1 has passed does not mean the issue is moot, according to Ruoff. The districts “seek funds from the State as fulfillment of its constitutional obligations during the 2019 Fiscal Year,” he wrote, meaning they could still try to claim those funds until June 30.

Ruoff says he plans to wrap the case up before then, with a hearing on the merits set for the week of June 3…..

The school districts argue the state should provide around $10,800 in adequacy aid.

The state, however, has cautioned against using the Department of Education numbers as a guide to the definition of a constitutionally adequate education. Statistics based on actual spending reflect local districts’ choices, which could exceed what is required for an adequate education, Solicitor General Daniel E. Will argued in a March 29 hearing.

Will also said that the N.H. Legislature’s definition of an adequate education centers on the “educational program” and excludes such “ancillary costs” as transportation and facilities maintenance. While lawmakers have chosen to partially fund those elements, they have no obligation to, he said.

In his order Friday, Ruoff signaled openness to the school districts’ basic contention.

“The base adequacy aid amount of $3,636 is a far cry from the actual (approximate) amount of $18,000 per pupil,” he wrote. “It does not appear, based on DOE data, that there is a single school district in the State that could function if it only spent $3,636 on each student.”

But, he added, those data have yet to be scrutinized in court, and “numbers can be deceiving in the absence of more information.”

Ruoff wrote that “the Plaintiffs must establish that the Legislature’s definition of ‘adequate education’ embraces the cost components and funding amounts they have identified; or, alternatively, the Plaintiffs must show that the Legislature’s determination of base adequacy aid effectively fails to meet its obligation to fund a constitutionally adequate education.”

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