January 19. 2013 11:28PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: School budget raises tax cap query, and the survey says ...

New Hampshire Union Leader

On Monday, Superintendent Thomas Brennan presented his preferred budget for the coming school year: $160 million.

Yes, that's a big number, but there wasn't the sticker shock that there was last year, when he proposed a $162 million "progressive" budget that exceeded the tax cap by $10 million.

This time around, the difference between the preferred budget and the tax cap budget is about $4 million.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said the numbers presented Monday represented a good starting point. "We're talking about a 3 percent difference," he said. "We might be able to find common ground."

Brennan's $160 million budget proposal, which calls for hiring 41 new teachers, runs more than 70 pages.

It's safe to say school board members will have more to say about it as the numbers get parsed. But Jim O'Connell, for one, already doesn't like it. The founder of Citizens for Manchester Schools, which has been clamoring for increased school funding since last year's budget talks, told the aldermen on Tuesday that the budget would come nowhere close to restoring staffing levels to what they were before last year's mass layoffs.

A bigger question may be whether the school board presses forward with Brennan's preferred budget or goes with the budget limited by the tax cap, which restricts increases in spending to the rate of inflation.

Citing a legal opinion furnished for the district last year, Brennan has said the school board is not obligated to propose a tax cap budget to the aldermen - who have the ultimate say over the school and city budgets.

It so happens that the Charter Commission delved into this very question on Wednesday. But the panel's legal counsel, Richard Lehmann, didn't exactly settle the matter.

The relevant passage of the charter is 6.15(A)(3), which states that "in submitting their proposed budgets to the board of aldermen, the mayor and the school district shall not propose total expenditures exceeding" the cap.

"Reading the charter," Lehmann said, "it's not clear to me whether the budgets are taken individually or in the aggregate. I think you could probably make the case either way. As people tasked with revising the charter, that may be something you want to clarify."

This matters because it means that the aldermen could, at least theoretically, consider a school budget that exceeds the tax cap while reducing the city budget so that the overall budget stays below the tax cap.

The mayor was emphatic that the charter requires both the district and the city to propose tax-capped budgets, saying, "I don't know how anybody can come up with a different legal opinion when it says precisely 'in submitting their proposed budgets to the board of aldermen, the mayor and the school district shall . '"

That is what the city solicitor said last year when the question came up. We'll see whether the school board presses the issue this time around.

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The results are in. Last month, the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce sent out a survey to its members to gauge their opinions about the city school system. The online survey had 217 respondents.

According to the survey, 69 percent believe "funding" is the biggest problem facing the district, followed by a "lack of books and technology" at 40 percent.

A slim majority - 51.6 percent - answered "no" when asked whether Manchester graduates were "adequately prepared for entry into post-secondary education studies or the work force."

It's worth noting that the survey did not ask whether respondents believed there were problems with the school system.

Rather, under the question about the greatest challenges facing the district, they could choose "I see no problems with the school district." Only one person chose this option.

It's safe to say that the chamber has already concluded that the school system is cause for concern.

The president of the chamber, Robin Comstock, told the Charter Commission earlier this month that its members believe "there is something wrong with education in this city."

It's also worth noting that only 12.4 percent of the respondents said they have children in the district schools, while 35.9 percent said they had children in the district in the past.

So how did the respondents derive their generally negative opinion of the schools?

Most - 55.3 percent - said they based their opinions about the schools on "word of mouth," followed by the media, at 47.1 percent.

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After much gnashing of teeth over his enviable travel schedule, Mark Brewer, the director of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, finally appeared before the aldermen last week.

And yes, he did appear to be the tannest guy in the room, but we won't speculate whether that had anything to do with him being fresh back from a business trip to Hawaii.

Most of the aldermen made it clear at their meeting Tuesday that they don't share the mayor's concern over Brewer's "excessive" travel.

They voted to approve trips that would have him out of the office for 110 business days - 22 weeks - between now and the end of the 2014 fiscal year.

Brewer's future travel schedule is even heavier than this year's - and that's what first prompted the mayor's concern.

Much of the travel stems from Brewer becoming the chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives.

"There are 5,000 members of this group, and I've worked my way through the association," Brewer said. "The travel obligations for this coming year are significantly more."

Brewer said his role with the group allows him to boost the profile of the Manchester airport.

The only no votes against approving the travel schedule came from Gatsas and Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur, who asked Brewer whether it was possible to get itineraries in advance in order to determine whether he really needed to be away for the duration of the trips.

One alderman had some fun with the issue.

"On your fourth day in Hawaii, what'd you have for lunch?" Alderman Jim Roy asked Brewer. "Don't worry, that was a joke."

Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.