The way New Hampshire funds education could be turned upside down as two separate lawsuits advance through the courts. One lawsuit seeks to halt education property tax rates and the other seeks to increase the amount the state pays per student.
Plaintiffs in the Grafton County education lawsuit are expected to argue Friday that the state should not be able to set a rate for the statewide education property tax (SWEPT ), arguing that the tax is unconstitutional as implemented.
Meanwhile, Governor Chris Sununu will not be required to sit for a deposition in the Contoocook Valley Regional School District lawsuit. Rockingham Superior Court Judge David Ruoff ruled that the plaintiff school districts failed to demonstrate that the governor was in possession of unique knowledge.
Both lawsuits seek to force the state to pay more of the costs of local schools, with plaintiffs in both cases alleging the state never followed New Hampshire Supreme Court rulings in the Claremont cases. of the 1980s and 1990s.
The Grafton County case involves several state residents who also own commercial and residential property. They claim that New Hampshire is violating the Supreme Court’s 1997 Claremont II decision.
In Claremont, the court ruled that New Hampshire had a constitutional obligation to provide adequate education. This decision found, in part, that the use of variable-rate local property taxes to pay for the state’s obligation to provide its students with an adequate education is unconstitutional.
The ConVal case, which now includes dozens of school districts as plaintiffs, seeks to force the state to increase per-student grants for an adequate education from $3,600 per student to about $10,000 per student, alleging that the current grant does not cover the necessary services.
According to lawyers in the Grafton County case, Andru Volinsky, John Tobin and Natalie Laflamme, the state continues to ignore the Supreme Court by using variable rates for SWEPT, which in effect continues to punish poor communities with lower land values.
“Since (Claremont II,) the state has tried many mechanisms to avoid putting in place a fair tax system that would have the effect of imposing a fairer tax burden on the wealthier towns, forcing the courts to intervene and protect the constitutional rights of New Hampshire citizens.. Now the state is ready to impose a tax again using the same mechanisms previously deemed unconstitutional, which will force some taxpayers to pay up to seven times more for the financing of education than their wealthier counterparts,” the attorneys write in a new filing with Grafton County Superior Court.
The Grafton County plaintiffs are now seeking an injunction to stop the state from setting a tax rate, asking the court to keep the SWEPT rate at $0. A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for Friday.
The SWEPT represents 30% of education funding in New Hampshire. The tax began in 1999 in response to the Claremont decisions, which found that the state has a constitutional obligation to fund adequate education. The money raised, more than $360 million estimated for the coming year, is being used to fund state matching grants.
According to the plaintiffs, wealthy communities raise more funds per student through SWEPT than the state’s low standard for what it says is the cost of an adequate state-funded education. And since 2011, the state has allowed these wealthy towns to keep the surplus, which goes against Claremont rulings, according to the motion.
“The SWEPT tax as currently administered does not have a flat rate because the state allows cities with excess SWEPT funds to set a negative local school tax rate to offset the official equalized SWEPT tax rate of the state or retain the surplus,” the motion reads. “Both of these mechanisms have already been ruled unconstitutional by New Hampshire courts.”
In the ConVal case, plaintiffs sought to depose Sununu to testify as to why he vetoed a bill that would have increased education spending by $140 million. The bill would have paid for the increase by reversing some of Sununu’s corporate tax cuts.
Ruoff found that the plaintiffs did not explain how Sununu’s veto was directly related to issues involved in the lawsuit, such as funding transportation, meals and other necessary services.
Ruoff has already found that the state does not follow Claremont decisions and unconstitutionally underfunds education. The ConVal case is due in the spring to try to determine what the appropriate tuition grant per pupil should be.