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No changes right now for Manchester school districts

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 28. 2013 11:48PM

MANCHESTER - School Superintendent Thomas Brennan has presented a redistricting report that draws much the same conclusion as past attempts at redrawing school attendance zones: the task is too complicated to be completed in a short time frame.

In his report, presented to the Board of School Committee on Monday, Brennan recommended "retaining the current configuration of our current elementary and middle schools" for the next school year, as well as for the high schools.

Brennan's report also made no proposal for the establishment of a central preschool, which was seen as a way of freeing up space at the district's elementary schools.

He did note, however, that there was enough capacity at Manchester High Schools Central and Memorial to eliminate West High. Any plans for a "new educational model" for West, Brennan stressed, should not be implemented until the 2014 school year and would require "a comprehensive plan and the appropriate vetting of the concept."

In the fall the school board, at the urging of Mayor Ted Gatsas, directed Brennan to press forward with a suite of reforms, following the uproar over crowded classes.

Progress has been made on several of those initiatives, including virtual learning and partnerships with local universities, but the redistricting component has proven far more challenging, Brennan told the school board.

"It's like squeezing the balloon - every time you put pressure one place, it pops up somewhere else," he said. "Whatever I came up with was not workable in many people's minds. We've spent a lot of time on this, and this is the best assessment based on what I have at this time."

Gatsas has pushed for redistricting since he was elected, as a way to make better use of school facilities. Some elementary and middle schools, such as McLaughlin, have considerable excess capacity, while others are overcrowded, such as Beech Street Elementary.

"We're trusting him with doing the redistricting," Gatsas said in September when the decision was made to give Brennan unprecedented authority over redistricting. "It is not an easy decision, but it must be done."

Several proposals for redistricting have come and gone in the face of parental resistance and high cost estimates.

The centralized preschool proposal was seen as a more workable alternative, with the more than 300 preschool students possibly sent to McLaughlin.

Brennan in his report said this option was not "educationally sound" and could have a fiscal impact of around $2 million.

Gatsas did not offer any comments in response to Brennan's report on Monday.

Brennan said there was no easy fix to the district's imbalanced school attendance patterns.

"You're either going to have to add a (elementary) school or expand a facility. It's unfortunate, but there wasn't a lot of long-range planning in terms of where schools were built," he said.

Brennan noted that there has been significant population growth on the northern outskirts of the city, while many school facilities are located on the West side, where the number of families has declined.

Board member Sarah Ambrogi said it may be time to consider a school assignment plan that bridges the two halves of the city.

"I think we may have to ignore the fact that there's a river in the city and look at moving children across that river," she said. "We have the buildings, but don't always have the families there."

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