When Jessica Wheeler Russell and her husband Adam Russell moved to Penacook in 2017, the local school system was one of their main considerations. Their two sons, then aged one and three, would soon be of school age.
Wheeler Russell grew up with a cooperative school district in the Upper Valley and loved the idea of towns coming together to share responsibility for student education.
The couple quickly became involved in the community. Wheeler Russell sits on the Merrimack Valley School Board, grows a community garden, and enjoys participating in local events like the Memorial Day Parade.
But over the years, the Russells became discouraged as their school property taxes steadily increased as state contributions to education fluctuated. They pay their taxes through their mortgage and feel the financial impact monthly.
“As a landlord, it’s really hard to watch your bill go up,” Wheeler Russell said. “Things are not getting cheaper. And seeing that some of the communities around you that have more land value have less pressure on their community than we do.
The Russells paid $8,024 in property taxes in 2021 for their $286,900 three-bedroom Colonial. Of this amount, $4,400 was for local school taxes and $447 for the statewide education property tax (SWEPT). Like other Penacook residents, the Russells pay their school taxes to Concord, and the city transfers the revenue to the Merrimack Valley School District to pay for public elementary, middle, and high school education.
This week, the Russells filed a new school funding equity lawsuit in Grafton Superior Court against the state of New Hampshire, with co-plaintiffs Robert Gabrielli, a retired doctor who owns commercial property in Penacook, and Steve Rand who owns Rand’s Hardware in Plymouth. The lawsuit argues that the State of New Hampshire is overly dependent on local taxpayers to provide the funding necessary to give students an adequate education, and as a result, school district funding is paid for by taxes that are not proportional between cities.
The Russells say living in Penacook puts their family at a “double disadvantage,” not only doing worse financially than the state average on the per-student rating, but also worse than their neighbors five houses down. down the street that are part of the City of Concord and pay less school taxes.
“It’s really hard to listen to your neighbors talk about how they might have to leave their house because they can’t afford it anymore,” Wheeler Russell said. “Your community is falling apart because of this. Sometimes it’s really hard to watch.
The lawsuit filed this week hinges on the 1997 rulings handed down for the Claremont school finance lawsuit, where the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that state property taxes for education must be “administered in a manner that is equal in assessment and uniform in rate throughout the State.”
The plaintiffs in the case are represented by lawyers Andru Volinsky and John Tobin, who were part of the legal team of the Claremont lawsuit in the 1990s and Natalie Laflamme, an attorney in the ongoing lawsuit over “ConVal” school funding, as well as the New Jersey-based Education Law Center.
“The uneven funding for education in New Hampshire affects the ability of poorer districts to meet the varied needs of their students,” Tobin said. “As the Supreme Court noted long ago, in the absence of public education, students cannot become ‘competitors in the marketplace of ideas.’ This hurts students and taxpayers and businesses in most communities across our state. »
In New Hampshire, approximately 62% of funds for public education come from local revenues, while the state funds 31% and the federal government funds 7%. New Hampshire property owners must pay both local school property taxes and state taxes. New Hampshire provides the least public funding for public education of any state in the nation, 2022 study finds report by the National Education Association.
The debate around New Hampshire’s education funding system identifies two types of cities: “asset-rich” cities, with rich tax bases and high property values that can generously fund their public schools, and “asset-rich” cities. asset poor” who struggle to provide financing without disproportionately high taxes. The divide, which has persisted despite several state Supreme Court rulings, means that asset-rich towns tend to enjoy better facilities, higher teacher pay, and often better academic outcomes, while that asset-poor cities experience delays in upgrading facilities and high staff turnover.
New Hampshire’s school funding system was declared “unfair from a student and taxpayer perspective” by the Commission to Study School Funding in a 2020 report. At the time, the commission – made up of state legislators , school administrators and education specialists – proposed to redistribute the SWEPT so that excess taxes from wealthier towns are passed on to those with fewer resources, restoring a “donor town” system that had been eliminated. in 2011.
Another school funding lawsuit, filed by the ConVal, Mascenic, Monadnock and Winchester school districts in 2019, is still pending. This lawsuit argues that the funding the state provides per student — which was about $3,636 in 2019 — is not enough and does not take into account the costs of transportation, teachers and facilities.
Wheeler Russell says she was five at the Claremont school funding trial in 1993 – now her youngest son is five.
“My children still face this, decades later, because the state still hasn’t honored its obligations,” Wheeler Russell said.