Contoocook Valley Sch. Dist. v. State

Decision Date23 March 2021
Docket NumberNo. 2019-0500,2019-0500
Citation174 N.H. 154,261 A.3d 270
Parties CONTOOCOOK VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT & a. v. The STATE of New Hampshire & a.
CourtNew Hampshire Supreme Court

Wadleigh, Starr & Peters, P.L.L.C., of Manchester (Michael J. Tierney and Elizabeth E. Ewing on the brief, and Mr. Tierney orally), for the plaintiffs.

Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Daniel E. Will, solicitor general, Anthony J. Galdieri, senior assistant attorney general, Lawrence M. Edelman, assistant attorney general, and Samuel R.V. Garland, attorney, on the brief, and Mr. Will orally), for the defendants.

John E. Tobin, Jr., of Concord, on the brief, and Laflamme Law, PLLC, of Concord (Natalie J. Laflamme on the brief), for Berlin School District, Derry School District, Hopkinton School District, Mascoma Valley Regional School District, Pittsfield School District, Newport School District, Merrimack Valley Regional School District, Haverhill School District, Winnisquam Regional School District, White Mountains Regional School District, Claremont School District, Concord School District, Warren School District, Piermont School District, Bath School District, Manchester School District, Governor Wentworth Regional School District, Keene School District, Chesterfield School District, Harrisville School District, Marlborough School District, Marlow School District, Nelson School District, Westmoreland School District, Nashua School District, Fall Mountain Regional School District, and the New Hampshire School Boards Association, as amici curiae.

American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, of Concord (Gilles R. Bissonnette and Henry R. Klementowicz on the brief), as amicus curiae.

Gregory M. Sorg, of Franconia, by brief, for Senator Harold French, Senator Robert Giuda, Representative Gregory Hill, Representative Carol McGuire, and Representative Andrew Renzullo, as amici curiae.

DONOVAN, J.

The defendants, the State of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Department of Education (DOE), Governor Christopher T. Sununu, and the Commissioner of DOE, Frank Edelblut (collectively, the State), appeal a decision of the Superior Court (Ruoff, J.) denying, in part, the State's motion to dismiss and denying its cross-motion for summary judgment, granting the plaintiffsmotion for summary judgment on grounds that the amount of per-pupil base adequacy aid set forth in RSA 198:40-a, II(a) (Supp. 2020) to fund an adequate education is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiff school districts, and awarding the plaintiffs attorney's fees. The plaintiffs, Contoocook Valley School District, Myron Steere, III, Richard Cahoon, Richard Dunning, Winchester School District, Mascenic Regional School District, and Monadnock Regional School District, cross-appeal the trial court's failure to find RSA 198:40-a, II(a) facially unconstitutional; its determinations regarding the sufficiency of the State's funding of transportation, teacher benefits, facilities operations and maintenance, and certain services; its failure to find that the State's system of funding education violates Part II, Article 5 of the State Constitution; and its denial of their request for injunctive relief; and its dismissal of their claims against the Governor and the Commissioner.

We affirm the trial court's dismissal of the Governor and the Commissioner in their individual capacities, and its denials of the State's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the State's cross-motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiffsrequest for injunctive relief. However, we reverse that portion of the trial court's order granting the plaintiffsmotion for summary judgment and awarding attorney's fees, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

At the outset, we note that the issue before us is a narrow one — whether the trial court erred in resolving the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims on summary judgment without significant discovery. The State does not contest the underlying law applicable to the issues in this case. Under our education funding jurisprudence, Part II, Article 83 of the State Constitution "imposes a duty on the State to provide a constitutionally adequate education to every educable child in the public schools in New Hampshire and to guarantee adequate funding." Claremont School Dist. v. Governor, 138 N.H. 183, 184, 635 A.2d 1375 (1993). To comply with that duty the State must "define an adequate education, determine the cost, fund it with constitutional taxes, and ensure its delivery through accountability." Londonderry Sch. Dist. v. State, 154 N.H. 153, 155-56, 907 A.2d 988 (2006) (quotation omitted). The plaintiffs do not challenge the constitutionality of the definition of an adequate education set forth in RSA 193-E:2-a (Supp. 2020). Rather, the plaintiffs’ grievance is that the State is not fulfilling its constitutional duty because local school districts require substantially more funding than the State currently provides under RSA 198:40-a, II(a) in order for them to deliver the opportunity for a constitutionally adequate education, as defined in RSA 193-E:2-a, to the public school children in New Hampshire.

I. Procedural Background

In Londonderry School District, the State appealed a trial court ruling that the State's education funding system violated Part II, Article 5 of the State Constitution and that the State had failed to fulfill its duty, as required by Part II, Article 83 of the New Hampshire Constitution, to define a constitutionally adequate education, to determine its cost, and to satisfy the requirement of accountability. Londonderry Sch. Dist., 154 N.H. at 154-55, 907 A.2d 988 ; see Claremont School Dist. v. Governor (Accountability), 147 N.H. 499, 505, 794 A.2d 744 (2002). We determined that, standing alone, the legislature's definition of an adequate education in RSA 193-E:2 did not fulfill the State's duty to define the substantive content of a constitutionally adequate education in such a manner "that the citizens of this state can know what the parameters of that educational program are." Londonderry Sch. Dist., 154 N.H. at 161, 907 A.2d 988. Because the definition of a constitutionally adequate education was essential to all other issues, including its cost, we stayed the portion of the trial court's decision that the legislature had failed to determine the cost of a constitutionally adequate education. Id. at 162, 907 A.2d 988.

Following our decision in Londonderry School District, the legislature enacted RSA 193-E:2-a, setting forth the substantive educational program to deliver the opportunity for an adequate education for kindergarten through twelfth grade. See RSA 193-E:2-a, I, II. The statute defines the "substantive content of an adequate education" as including instruction in:

(a) English/language arts and reading.
(b) Mathematics.
(c) Science.
(d) Social Studies.
(e) Arts education.
(f) World languages.
(g) Health education ....
(h) Physical education.
(i) Engineering and technologies.
(j) Computer science and digital literacy.

RSA 193-E:2-a, I (bolding and capitalization omitted). The "specific criteria and substantive educational program that deliver the opportunity for an adequate education shall be defined as" the "minimum standards for public school approval for the areas identified in paragraph I." RSA 193-E:2-a, I, IV(a). Those minimum standards "shall clearly set forth the opportunities to acquire the communication, analytical and research skills and competencies, as well as the substantive knowledge expected to be possessed by students at the various grade levels," RSA 193-E:2-a, II, and "shall constitute the opportunity for the delivery of an adequate education," RSA 193-E:2-a, IV(a). The New Hampshire Board of Education and DOE are required to "refin[e] the minimum standards for public school approval for each area of education identified in paragraph I," RSA 193-E:2-a, V(a); however, the enumerated list set forth in paragraph I cannot be amended without the legislature's approval. See RSA 193-E:2-a, IV(a)-(c).

The legislature also established a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Costing an Adequate Education (Joint Committee) and charged it with studying "the analytical models and formulae for determining the cost of an adequate education ... for children throughout the state." Laws 2007, 270:2. In February 2008, the Joint Committee issued its Final Report and Findings (Final Report), which incorporated a breakdown of costs it had considered (the 2008 Spreadsheet).

Thereafter, the legislature enacted RSA 198:40-a, setting forth the annual per-pupil cost of providing the opportunity for an adequate education as defined in RSA 193-E:2-a. The legislature determined that cost, based on average daily membership in attendance (ADMA), see RSA 189:1-d, III (2009); RSA 198:38, I(a) (Supp. 2020), to be:

(a) A cost of $3,561.27 per pupil in the ADMA, plus differentiated aid as follows:
(b) An additional $1,780.63 for each pupil in the ADMA who is eligible for a free or reduced price meal; plus
(c) An additional $697.77 for each pupil in the ADMA who is an English language learner; plus
(d) An additional $1,915.86 for each pupil in the ADMA who is receiving special education services; plus
(e) An additional $697.77 for each third grade pupil in the ADMA with a score below the proficient level on the reading component of the state assessment ....

RSA 198:40-a, II. The statute provides that "[t]he sum total calculated under paragraph II shall be the cost of an adequate education." RSA 198:40-a, III. The rates set forth in the statute are adjusted each biennium to reflect changes in the federal Consumer Price Index. RSA 198:40-d (Supp. 2020). At issue in this case is the cost amount set forth in RSA 198:40-a, II(a). According to the plaintiffs, that amount was $3,636.06 per pupil for the 2019 fiscal year.

In March 2019, the plaintiffs brought a petition for declaratory judgment and injunctive...

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