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Paul Feely's City Hall: After home-schooler's tour was denied, Manchester School District looks for a fix

February 03. 2018 5:41PM
Dr. Bolgen Vargas, the superintendent of Manchester schools (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)

School officials say concerns raised by a parent - whose request to tour a city high school before deciding whether to enroll her daughter was denied - are already being addressed.

Stacey Weigler, a resident of Ward 8, told school board members during a recent meeting that her daughter - currently enrolled in the eighth grade in a public charter school in the city - was considering attending a city high school next fall. She said she contacted administrators at her neighborhood high school, Memorial, about the possibility of visiting the school or having her daughter shadow a student before they made a decision.

"I was told that wasn't possible," said Weigler. She said she was told she wouldn't be notified of any open houses at the school because her daughter is not enrolled as a student in the Manchester district, but she "should keep an eye on the website" for any details about future open houses.

Last week, Dr. Bolgen Vargas, the superintendent of schools, said in response to Weigler's comments that district officials are speaking with principals about strategies to share information about city schools with new students or those looking to return to the district.

"This is one of those things that we need to work together to make sure things like this don't happen," Vargas told school board members. "Things like that are easy to address and go a long way to serving our families."

"I think things like that make it hard for people to choose Manchester," said at-large school board member Rich Girard. "We need to get our act together and realize people have choices, and they are going to exercise those choices. If we don't welcome them to our schools and invite them to see all the good things that are happening, they are going to come here, complain to us, and then go somewhere else."

"These families are our customers, and we have to treat them as such," said Sarah Ambrogi of Ward 1. "I think we should delve more deeply into this subject. We need to change our thinking. This is just the tip of an iceberg that goes pretty deep."

The new Special Committee on Parental Involvement, chaired by Jimmy Lehoux of Ward 8, is expected to review how the district interacts with prospective students when it holds its first meeting Monday at 5:30 p.m. in the district offices at 195 McGregor St.

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Dr. Vargas reports Manchester High School West staff continue to work on a redesign effort funded by a $300,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to transform West into a "competency-based, student-centered learning model of education."

School officials learned in October the district was one of eight grantees chosen from a pool of 31 applicants across New England to receive a grant from the Barr Foundation to redevelop a local school. The funds from the grant will help the district and its partners develop a plan to transform five key areas of the West High School experience: out-of-school learning; personalization; college and career preparation; student support and family engagement; and school culture.

According to Vargas, staff at West recently visited two schools to observe innovative practices to use in the redesign project. Members of the redesign team attended a Barr networking event last week featuring all Barr grant recipients, and the next Community Advisory meeting on the project is scheduled for March 8, time and location to be determined.

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Mayor Joyce Craig ventured to Concord last week to testify before the House Public Works and Highways Committee during a public hearing on the state's 10-year transportation plan. Craig voiced support for bringing commuter rail to New Hampshire, a topic she frequently discussed while campaigning for mayor last fall.

"For years, both the Manchester business community and the Chamber of Commerce have forcefully advocated for the expansion of commuter rail to our downtown," said Craig. "Expanded commuter rail will allow Manchester to experience new economic development opportunities, attract a youthful workforce, expand transit opportunities and increase accessibility to employment in the Greater Manchester area."

Craig highlighted the Millyard, which she dubbed a "booming business and educational hub," saying its continued vibrancy is "critical to our city and state's economic success."

"Bringing commuter rail to Manchester is an essential step in supporting and strengthening our community," said Craig. "Outside of the business impact, expanding commuter rail has the potential for positive economic impact as well."

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When the Aldermanic Committee on Community Improvement meets Monday at City Hall, on the agenda is a request from a nonprofit in Georgia, asking the city to donate an old fire engine to their charity.

According to Kevin O'Maley, head of the city's Fleet Management Department, a 1990 E-One fire engine has been taken out of service and replaced with a new engine. The city auctions off older pieces of equipment, and this truck was put out to auction with a minimum bid of $2,500.

No bids above the minimum price threshold were received, and the Pink Heals Tifton/Tift County organization in Tifton, Ga., has requested the city donate the engine to their charity.

According to Austin Martin, president of Pink Heals Tifton/Tift County, his organization is a nonprofit charity that "provides home visits to people battling cancer to show individuals that they are loved, cherished and important to others."

"Pink Heals brings back the human element by celebrating people, not causes," writes Martin in a letter to city aldermen.

In the letter, Martin states his group is in need of a fire engine to paint pink to go out on home visits. The vehicle would also become part of the national Pink Heals Tour next year, when pink firetrucks and police cars are driven across America to deliver the Pink Heals program to a wide range of communities.

In a letter to aldermen, O'Maley recommends donating the truck to this "worthy cause."

"Based on our conversations, this donation will provide greater benefit than any monetary value received by the city in this particular case," writes O'Maley. "There will be no expense to the city of Manchester for this."

The Aldermanic Committee on Community Improvement will meet Monday at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

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The Committee on Community Improvement is also scheduled to hear a request to reassign the HOME loan fund for 243 Douglas St. from the 243 Douglas Street Limited Partnership to NeighborWorks Southern New Hampshire.

NeighborWorks is in the process of acquiring seven units of affordable housing at 243, 244 and 259 Douglas St. These properties were originally developed in 1994 by Lloyd Jones Capital of Florida using the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program through New Hampshire Housing and HOME funding from the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

The owner is no longer interested in holding onto the properties and is transferring ownership interest and existing debt to NeighborWorks. In order to complete the transfer, the city must agree to assign the HOME loan from the 243 Douglas Street Limited Partnership to NeighborWorks.

At this time NeighborWorks isn't seeking any changes in the terms of the HOME loan, but once they have taken ownership of the property, NeighborWorks anticipates refinancing and restructuring the debt to make capital improvements and deferred maintenance repairs, according to Executive Director Robert Tourigny.

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Mayor Craig's communications and policy director, Lauren Smith, reports the spire at City Hall has been lit up this weekend in red and blue ahead of the New England Patriots taking on the Philadelphia Eagles later today in Super Bowl LII in Minnesota. On Friday, City Hall employees were invited to wear Patriots gear to work, or red in support of the American Heart Association for any non-Pats fans on staff.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at

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