January 23. 2013 11:02PM

Manchester parents add to charter wish list, say school budget is left until too late

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER - Several dozen residents turned out on a frigid Wednesday evening to urge the Charter Commission to consider changes to the city's basic governing document they said would benefit the public school system.

The meeting was a public hearing on education, the third consecutive Charter Commission meeting to deal with the topic.

There were roughly 40 people at the meeting, and most of the nearly 20 people who addressed the panel supported a common slate of changes. The proposals included moving up the deadline for the city to finalize a budget for the school district; maintaining or expanding the authority of the school district; removing the mayor as chairman of the school board; and making it easier to override the tax cap.

Many of those who addressed the panel were parents with children in city schools.

"I have been nothing but pleased with Webster," said Erin Kerwin, who has a first-grader at Webster Elementary School. "I appreciate my daughter's opportunity to learn about people with different life experiences than she has had."

But, Kerwin stressed, "I feel we're letting our education system spiral out of control ... As much as I value diversity, I won't sacrifice my daughter's education."

There was one resident who spoke up to defend the city's tax cap, which many of the parents have criticized as a key reason the district is under-funded.

"This is how we taxpayers can have some control over wasteful spending," said John Gimas, who described himself as a business owner in the city.

Finalize budget earlier

Nick Want spoke on behalf of the group Citizens for Manchester Schools, which formed last year to advocate for increased funding for the school system.

Want outlined several proposals, including maintaining the district as a separate entity, rather than reincorporating it into city government, as some have advocated; removing the mayor from the school board; putting language in the Charter stating that the city is required to provide an "adequate" education for all children; and enabling aldermen to override the tax cap with a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds majority.

Want also urged the commission to consider a more modest change, one that was echoed by several speakers: move up the deadline for when the district budget must be finalized from early June to earlier in the spring.

The current system "means planning for the next year doesn't start until the midnight hour, and we witnessed the consequences this year with classes in excess of 40 students," Want said.

Other parents said the budget schedule exacts a difficult toll on teachers, who must cope with the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will be keeping their jobs in the fall.

Students also pick up on their teachers' stress, said Judy Martin.

"The children are very aware of what's going on with the system," she said. "If we move the date forward, we can keep great teachers."

Hooksett student exodus

Several parents pointed to ongoing controversy with the towns of Hooksett and Candia, as they seek alternative schools for their high school students.

"I have a family member who is a teacher in Londonderry. They're reaping the benefit of our loss," Kelly Mills said. "They're recruiting Hooksett and Candia families, and we'll lose 60 families, and they're good families."

Mills added that she works in real estate. "I can say the number-one thing people ask is, 'How are schools? How well are they supported?' I think this is having a real impact on the value of our homes," she said.

Mills was one of several parents at the meeting who have kids at Webster Elementary School, and all of them had positive things to say about the school, a fact that prompted commission Chairman Jerome Duval to joke that a fellow member of the commission, Christine Martin, "is glowing tonight."?Martin is the principal of Webster.

The next meeting of the Charter Commission was tentatively set for Feb. 6, when the panel intends to meet with the city solicitor and finance director for another working session on education.