House Bill 174 would leave little recourse for public on adequacy

By MICHAEL KITCH, THE LACONIA DAILY SUN

CONCORD — Amid growing concern among municipalities and school districts across the state at the prospect of reduced state aid to education, legislation has been introduced to limit the jurisdiction of the courts over the statutes defining the content of an adequate education and distributing state funds to provide for it.

House Bill 174 would specifically exempt RSAs 193-E and 198, the statutes originally enacted in 1999 to address the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s ruling in so-called Claremont suit, from the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. “This would take the courts out of the school funding business,” said newly elected state Sen. Harold French (R- Franklin), one of the sponsors of the bills. “The final word would be with the Legislature.”

The legislation was filed on the heels of a court decision that found legislation that capped state aid distributed to school districts with enrollment unconstitutional and just as cities, towns and school districts have begun to urge the Legislature to reverse its decision to phase out so-called stabilization grants.

The grants were introduced in 2012, when lawmakers rewrote the formula for distributing state aid, reducing reimbursements for special education students and funding for districts with relatively less property value per student. The grants were intended to offset the diminished funding, which weighed most heavily on property poor municipalities. For example, in fiscal year 2016 the stabilization grant to Laconia amounted to $1,463,505, or more than a fifth of all its state aid. In Franklin the stabilization grant represents about half of its $8 million in state aid. In Coos County, the city of Berlin and 17 towns receive more than $14 million in stabilization grants.

However, beginning in fiscal year 2017, the stabilization grants will be reduced 4 percent a year for the next 25 years until they are eliminated altogether. In October, officials in Franklin and Northfield approached 45 municipalities at risk of foregoing at least $1 million a year when the stabilization grants are phased out “to explore legislative and/or legal solutions needed to protect the fiscal integrity of our schools and communities.”

House Bill 174 would would appear to foreclose a legal solution. “It would leave the responsibility for funding education to the Legislature,” French said. “The Legislature could work more effectively without having to refer to the court.” At the same time, French said that the sponsors of the bill “are working on the stabilization issue” as well as seeking to eliminate mandates the state imposes on local school district but fails to fund.

House Bill 174 is sponsored by Rep. Greg Hill (R-Northfield) and co-sponsored by Rep. Dan Itse (R-Fremont) and senators French, Bob Giuda (R-Warren) and Kevin Avard (R-Nashua).

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