March 31. 2013 10:37PM

Mayor's proposed Manchester city budget faces public hearing tonight

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER - School spending advocates say they will make their case for more money for education when Mayor Ted Gatsas' proposed city budget faces a public hearing tonight.

The hearing before a joint meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and Board of School Committee is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Manchester Memorial High School.

Gatsas and the school board are required by city charter to submit budgets that meet the city's tax cap spending limit.

The mayor's 2013-14 budget proposal allocates $138 million from taxes for municipal departments and $155.7 million for the Manchester School District.

School Superintendent Thomas Brennan has also sent a higher "school approval" budget of $159.5 million to aldermen.

That package is aimed at keeping school programs and staffing intact in light of rising costs.

"It is not enough," said Jim O'Connell, president of Citizens for Manchester Schools. "It will not get the schools to a place where they need to be."

O'Connell's group claims the school approval budget would merely keep the city from failing to meet the state's minimum standards for public schools.

"Nobody in the city has produced a budget that describes the amount of money needed to run the school system," O'Connell said. "It is completely ludicrous in a city like Manchester that no public representative has asked for the number that is how much we need to run the schools, rather than the minimum we need so that we will not be out of compliance."

O'Connell said the budgets don't consider the potential impact of negotiations with the Manchester Education Association on a new contract for city teachers.

"We worry about the reality," he said. "We will have another year of large reductions in force and reductions in offerings in our school district."

Manchester schools are expected to lose 23 teachers to retirement or resignation in June. The school approval budget would allow those positions to be filled, along with hiring 41 additional teachers.

Under the tax cap budget, the city would replace nine of the 23 teachers who are leaving; no new positions would be filled, according to Brennan.

The spending increase authorized under the tax cap for the 2013-14 fiscal year is 2.17 percent of last year's budget. The school approval budget would boost that to 4.67 percent.

Approved by the voters in 2009, the tax cap limits increases in city spending to the average increase in the cost of living over the three previous years, plus taxes from new construction through March 31.

Overriding the tax cap would require getting the votes of 10 aldermen - during an election year.

Citizens for Manchester Schools has federal tax status as a charitable organization, and is barred from becoming involved in electoral politics.

But O'Connell said individual members of the group may band together in a separate organization to take a role in next fall's city election.

"We may or may not pull the trigger on that, but we hope to be active in picking candidates to support and oppose," O'Connell said. "I could not see a circumstance where a serious candidate for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen or School Board would seek office and not have as their first priority a sense of urgency for the city's educational process."

The proposal is packaged with the mayor's proposal to borrow $2.8 million to pay for technology upgrades in city schools.

In the coming fiscal year, the city must absorb almost $5 million in costs shifted to the local property tax from the federal and state governments.

The state passed along $4 million in pension costs.

Expiration of federal grants used to hire police officers and firefighters means property taxes also must pay more than $800,000 to fund those positions.

Tonight's hearing was scheduled at Memorial High School because of the size of the crowd that attended last year's hearing.