A group of local residents is rallying support from as many 30 towns to help fund a lawsuit against the state government challenging the Constitutionality of the existing school funding formula.
On Monday, the Hamilton Board of Selectmen heard from the non-profit group “Tax Reform for Education,” which is hoping to collect $300,000 from 30 different communities to fund the lawsuit – a move that the group said is needed to force change of Chapter 70, the school funding law.
“Nothing is going to change absent a lawsuit,” said Ann Weeks, a local attorney that is a member of the group.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the premise that local property taxes are in fact an unequal state tax that exists to fund the state mandated responsibility of education. For example, similarly assessed properties in two different towns could have tax bills that vary by as much as 600 percent.
“The legal theory of the case is that the current funding system for education in Massachusetts is unconstitutional,” Weeks said.
The suit won’t provide a solution, but rather is designed to force action by the Legislature.
Tracy Mayor, who is also part of the nonprofit group, said education reform is too “hot button” and too big of a job for the Legislature to take on without a lawsuit.
“Education reform is Massachusetts is always driven by litigation,” Mayor said.
Similar lawsuits in Vermont and New Hampshire have been successful, Weeks said.
Already, attorney Michael Weisman – who successfully sued the state in the McDuffy case in 1993 that established that the state has a constitutional duty to provide public education for all students – has been brought in on the case. Weeks called Weisman “the guru for education law.” The Massachusetts Taxpayers Association is also “intrigued” by the lawsuit, Weeks said.
Communities already on board are Essex, Hamilton, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Swampscott and Wenham, which each provided seed money for Weisman to take a look at the initial arguments of the case.
“Swampscott has a worse Chapter 70 situation than we do,” Mayor said.
Earlier this month, the Wenham Board of Selectmen also heard from the group
The Hamilton Selectmen on Monday did not commit to spending any more money on the case, but all members generally expressed support. The group asked for another $6,000 from Hamilton, on top of the $4,000 that had already been committed.
“We’d like to take it to the next step and help where we can,” Selectmen Chairman Jennifer Scuteri said.
Selectman Marc Johnson said he supported the idea even if it wasn’t clear exactly how any new funding formula might help Hamilton.
“If successful, this will convince the state that the system is broken,” Johnson said.
Hamilton should be proud to be the “birthplace” of the lawsuit, said Selectman Jeff Hubbard.
Town Manager Michael Lombardo said he would bring a specific spending proposal to the board at a future meeting.
“It’s one thing to be supportive of the funding and it’s another thing to make sure we have it,” Lombardo said.
The group’s next step is to solicit support of other towns, and has assembled a list of towns with high property tax rates, low Chapter 70 funding amounts and a high number of low income or fixed income residents.
They have assembled a packet with all the basic information about the group’s case.
“We’re trying to answer all the questions, or as many as we can, in advance,” Mayor said.
The $300,00 in funding will take the suit through the ”next chunk of action.”
We’re hoping to 30 communities,” Mayor said. “We are not alone in this.”