April 07. 2013 11:26PM

Class sizes in Manchester create a divide

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER - Just how much progress has been made in alleviating class sizes within city schools is far from clear in a series of reports that has caught the attention of the state Board of Education.

As aldermen prepare to adopt a budget for the next academic year, new figures released by the Manchester School District last week showed considerably more classes than previously reported exceed the state limit of 30 students. It's an issue that has dogged the district since the school year began with some classrooms full enough to violate fire codes.

"They have made some progress and deserve credit for that," said Jim O'Connell, president of Citizens for Manchester Schools. "But the fact is there remain huge problems within our schools and there doesn't seem to be the political will or the political courage to take action to resolve those problems."

The budget is on the agenda for today's 4:30 p.m. meeting of the Special Joint Committee on Education, which includes aldermen and some members of the school board. The meeting will be followed by a 7 p.m. Board of School Committee meeting and a special Tuesday meeting of the school board to discuss the budget.

The budget also is likely to come up April 17, when the state Board of Education comes to the city for a meeting at Manchester High School West.

The state board is taking a close look at what has been happening in Manchester and the wide discrepancy in different reports on class sizes. Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather said during a February meeting that Manchester reported 36 classes remained above the 30-student limit.

The latest figures show 50 high school classes over the limit in late March. There were 102 middle school classes over the 30-student limit.

"The city has been doing everything it can to obfuscate the truth of what's going on in our schools," O'Connell said.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who chairs both the school and aldermanic boards, has remained steadfast in his opposition to overriding a voter-approved tax cap. He has proposed a $155.7 million budget he says would provide the necessary funding to restore teaching positions and bring class sizes within the state limit.

Superintendent Tom Brennan proposed a budget of $159.5 million, which he said would bring back more teaching positions and restore class sizes to the levels they were before last year's round of layoffs after a budget impasse.

Brennan's budget would require the Board of Aldermen to go against Gatsas and approve going above the tax cap.

Brennan acknowledged his budget plan has little chance of getting past the aldermen, but feels the $4 million difference between his plan and the mayor's is needed to get the district back within state standards when it comes to class size.

"I think it's incumbent on me to continue to make the mayor and aldermen aware," said Brennan, who is stepping down at the end of June. "Hopefully I will be successful in convincing them at least in closing the gap. My responsibility is to share the facts, provide information when requested."

O'Connell is skeptical of both budgets, enough so that his group took its concerns to the state. He also doesn't like Brennan referring to his plan as the "school approval budget," aimed at getting the district within the approval standards set by the state.

Schools in New Hampshire's largest city should be aiming higher than just meeting the minimum requirements of the state, O'Connell said.

"Part of the issue is an inordinate part of our taxes go to city services and an inordinately low portion toward our schools and the education of our kids," O'Connell said. "We do have great students and great schools. That is in spite of the fact that the mayor refuses to recognize that Manchester schools are among the lowest-funded schools in the state of New Hampshire."

"At some point you get what you pay for," said Nick Want, vice president of Citizens for Manchester Schools.

Gatsas has grown frustrated about the repeated questions he's faced about class sizes over the last seven months. He said he won't support overriding the tax cap because "it's not necessary" and wishes more attention was being paid to student accomplishments and the efforts teachers have made to overcome the difficult circumstances.

"People want to continue to talk about the district and not about the education these kids are getting," Gatsas said. "Everywhere you look you can write something that's positive. Yet we look for everything to tear down this district. And you know what? We're weathering the storm well and at some point we're going to be in great shape."

Gatsas' frustrations go beyond the issue of class sizes. The district has had an unusual run of incidents since the school year began.

There was the mysterious suspension of Manchester High School West principal MaryEllen McGorry and her secretary, then the $100,000-plus tab that followed for an investigation into allegations that have never been made public. The school board accepted McGorry's resignation in January while agreeing to pay her through April and cover health benefits through June.

The district's image took another public hit when the school board failed to pick a successor to Brennan. The field was narrowed to three superintendent finalists. After one withdrew, a majority of the board could not agree to back either of the remaining candidates.

There was also the New Hampshire Union Leader report last week on new state figures for the 2011-12 school year that showed the number of Manchester high school dropouts is well above the state average, comprising a fourth of all dropouts statewide.

The district has also been trying to preserve its agreement with Candia and Hooksett to send students from the neighboring towns to Manchester's high schools. Gatsas said a meeting with Candia officials last week went well and was a positive example of cooperation.

Hooksett, however, has formally declared Manchester to be in breach of contract and wants out of the deal altogether.