School District Can’t Become City Department by Charter Amendment

City of Manchester School District v. City of Manchester
City of Manchester School District v. City of Manchester
No. 2003-303
Monday, March 15, 2004

In this case the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the city acted without authority when, by charter amendment, it merged the school district with the municipal corporation to make the school district a city department.

Pursuant to a 1999 school district petition, the superior court determined that the Manchester School District was not a department of the city because it functioned as an independent governmental entity. In 2001 the Manchester voters passed a charter amendment proposed by the mayor and aldermen that merged the school district with the municipal corporation and gave the governing body certain budgetary oversight authority. The school district again petitioned the court seeking a declaration that the charter amendment was unlawful. The superior court concluded that creation of a school department requires a specific legislative act and granted the district’s motion for summary judgment. The city appealed.

In rendering its opinion, the Supreme Court considered the New Hampshire constitution and state statutes relative to municipal and school district authority. Under the constitution, municipalities have only the power that the state delegates to them through the legislature. RSA Chapters 49-C, 49-C and 49-D lay out a detailed statutory scheme by which local charter forms of government may form and operate. Manchester, for example, has opted to operate under the mayor-board of aldermen form of government. As the Court noted, RSA Chapter 49-C sets forth an “exhaustive blueprint” for this form of government.

On appeal the city argued that RSA 49-C:21 clearly authorized the city to establish a city school department by charter amendment. RSA 49-C:21 provides:

The city shall have departments, divisions and bureaus as may be established by the charter…It shall be the duty of the first chief administrative officer…to draft and submit to the elected body…an ordinance…which provides for the division of the administrative service of the city into departments…”

The Court disagreed, finding that RSA 49-B:1 provides the framework for construing RSAs 49-B, -C and -D, and that RSA 49-B:1 directs that towns and cities may adopt or amend a municipal charter, so long as the resulting charter does not conflict with the general laws or constitution of this state. The Court also noted its holding in Girard v. Allenstown, 121 N.H. 268 (1981) that RSA 49-B “was intended only to provide a statutory framework by which the cities and towns may amend their actual form of government and that RSA 49-B:8…grants only the power necessary to carry out such changes.” Thus, the Court concluded that the city acted outside its scope of authority where RSA 49-B authorizes municipalities to amend their actual form of government and that by amending its charter to make the school district into a city department the city was not amending its form of government. The Court further noted that the comprehensive statutory scheme relative to the independent powers and functioning of school districts in RSA Chapter 194 provides additional evidence that the legislature intended the district to run independently from the municipality. The city also pointed to three other cities that have school districts that are city departments. The Court noted that these departments were created by special legislative act, providing even more support for the conclusion that the city acted outside its scope of authority in attempting to create a school department through charter amendment.