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Hamilton to be "Birthplace" of Lawsuit Challenging Education Funding

A group of local citizens is undertaking an effort to gain support - and funding - for a lawsuit against the state government to challenge the Constitiutionality of the state's education funding formula.

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.”

Ron Powell July 12, 2011 at 12:50 PM
This is certainly intriguing. It's an interesting angle. Megan Britt and Anna Hall, for their masters thesis at the Harvard Kennedy School, studied foundation-level spending versus actual spending in pretty good detail, and pointed out the discrepancy in funding of the wealthier communities that receive the 17.5 percent floor funding from Chapter 70. I wonder how the litigants address Hancock v. Commissioner of Education, the 2005 case in which the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the Chapter 70 law.
Tracy July 12, 2011 at 03:24 PM
Hi, Ron, Thanks for your comment! Hope this isn't too much for people to absorb on a hot summer day, but here's a response from one of our legal eagles. Warning: it's long! The claims brought in Hancock v. Commissioner of Educ., 443 Mass. 428 (2005) were by students challenging whether the Chapter 70 formula adequately provided for public education. More specifically, the constitutional question was whether the Commonwealth, after the first decade with Ch. 70, was still in violation of its constitutional obligation to “cherish the schools” by providing for an “adequate” education for all K-12 children. Our case asks instead the new question whether Ch. 70’s formula, as applied, violates the separate constitutional requirement that state taxation to fund state obligations and duties must be ‘reasonable and proportional’ including ‘proportional’ across all property in the same class in the state. [continued]
Tracy July 12, 2011 at 03:24 PM
here's the rest: Hancock involved detailed findings of fact before a lower court, which then were reviewed by the Supreme Judicial Court, which determined that after Ch 70, there was no “egregious, Statewide abandonment of the constitutional duty [to provide an adequate public K-12 education].”Again, that case was solely focused on the first prong of the theory – that is, what is the state’s duty with respect to providing an adequate public education. Unlike Hancock, our case does not ask whether the foundation budget funds an adequate education, but rather whether in practice the formula established under chapter 70 is unconstitutional because it results in such disparate tax rates on similarly assessed property in the same class, across the state. Insofar as property taxes are required by the state to fund the foundation budgets under Chapter 70, they are not local taxes, they are state taxes. And they must meet the constitution’s proportionality requirement.
Robert Gates (Editor) July 12, 2011 at 04:07 PM
Tracy, thanks for chiming in. Personally, I think this will be fascinating to watch as it develops, having personally watched the "Claremont" cases in N.H. and the evolution of Act 60 into Act 68 in Vermont, while living in both places, respectively.
Ron Powell July 12, 2011 at 04:32 PM
Wow, I am duly impressed by the quick and thorough reply. Yes, I did notice that this lawsuit challenges the Chapter 70 law from a different angle than Hancock did, and the rationale behind the lawsuit makes sense to me.
Michelle Bailey July 12, 2011 at 07:49 PM
Ron, Could you refer your local Board of Selectman to the Tax Reform for Education website? http://www.taxreformforeducation.com/ I'm sure Tracy or one of the others on the team would be happy to make a presentation for them.
William Harris July 13, 2011 at 08:42 PM
Down the slippery slope we go....
Ron Powell July 13, 2011 at 10:51 PM
Trying to make this happen in Reading. I had previously been made aware of Tax Reform for Education through online discourse with Dave Whelan, a former Swamscott School Committee member. Here is the Pioneer Institute study identifying the major inadequacies and inequities of the current law: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/var/ezp_site/storage/fckeditor/file/pdfs/centers-programs/centers/rappaport/paes/final_chapter70.pdf It doesn't really touch on the issues identified in the lawsuit, but it does point out the serious disparity between the aid to suburban communities north and west of Boston versus other cities and towns.

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