Members of the Manchester boards of school committee and aldermen at a public hearing on the school budget Monday evening at Memorial High School. (TED SIEFER/UNION LEADER)
MANCHESTER - Members of the public urged the aldermen at a hearing Monday to override the tax cap and pass a school budget that exceeds the $155.7 million proposed by the mayor.
At the same time, a smaller number of residents defended the tax cap at the hearing, which was held in the auditorium of Manchester Memorial High School.
The meeting was technically an aldermanic meeting, but the school board for the first time was invited to attend the annual aldermanic hearing on the school budget, and they sat together across the stage.
About 60 people attended the event, with the comments favoring a larger school budget by a roughly 3-to-1 margin.
Mayor Ted Gatsas has proposed a 2014 fiscal year budget for the Manchester School District of $155.7 million, the maximum amount allowed under the tax cap.
School Superintendent Thomas Brennan has proposed a larger "school approval" budget of $159.5 million, which would allow the district to fill 23 teacher vacancies and hire 41 additional teachers. Brennan has said the budget is designed to ensure the district meets minimum state standards.
Many of the speakers Monday urged the aldermen to show "courage" and vote to override the tax cap, which requires 10 votes on the 14-member board.
"I'm beyond asking - I'm begging you, at least fund the school system at an adequate level," Bill Hughen said. "So we can once again be an educational beacon in the state, rather than an example of what not to do, so we can be the top dog, rather than chasing our tail."
Hughen alluded to several recent events covered in the media, including the rising dropout rates at Manchester high schools and the inability of the school board to agree on a finalist for superintendent.
"Once again I was dismayed when we saw the district couldn't find one person out of a pool of 80," he said.
Tax cap defenders
While most of the speakers pressed for more money for the schools, the hearing was not as well-attended as the one last year, and it featured more speakers who defended the tax cap. Last year, about 200 people crowded into the City Hall chamber to decry the potential layoff of 160 educators. The overcrowding is what prompted officials to hold Monday's hearing at Memorial High.
Win Hutchinson, a Republican former state representative, was among those who spoke up to defend the tax cap.
"I think I speak on behalf of large groups of retired, fixed-income people who own property and who say enough already... It's time to find common ground."
Tammy Simmons, also a former state representative, challenged the aldermen to hold a vote on the tax cap.
"It's an election year," she said. "When voters choose to vote for (the tax cap) not once but twice, I think we line everybody up. I think it's time to show you're either with the voters or against them, and let the chips fall where they may."
Most of the speakers, however, said crowded classes and other problems, along with the media attention they garnered, were causing real harm to the city.
"Unfortunately, we're becoming a bit of a talking point in the real estate community," said John Bisson, a real estate attorney. "People are aware we're having this problem funding our school district. Our message is being heard loud and clear. It's time to change the message, folks."
Several of the speakers were affiliated with the group Citizens for Manchester Schools, which formed last year to advocate for more school funding.
Erin Kerwin said she saw the effect the school situation was having in her own neighborhood.
"Our friends had to leave. One went to Concord, one to Bedford. Unfortunately, the one thing that would get families to leave is the state of the schools," she said.
Peter Sorrentino, who also works as a teacher in the district, argued that Manchester is unique among communities in the state in that it has the highest tax burden for city services, and among the lowest for schools.
"I've watched the numbers very carefully," he said, holding up a copy of his property tax bill. "In the four years prior to the cap, my property taxes increased 22 percent for city services, and in the same period the school bill went down 2 percent. And what we did two years ago (with the tax cap) was lock them in place."