August 11. 2018 8:54PM

Paul Feely's City Hall: What Manchester's mayor says she has done to date, Part 1

By PAUL FEELY


Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)

With the majority of city boards, committees and commissions on hiatus the last two weeks, Mayor Joyce Craig sat down with the New Hampshire Sunday News to go over some of the promises she made while campaigning for the job, and efforts to make good on them.

This week, we'll chronicle portions of that discussion. Additional coverage will appear in next Sunday's installment.

Education

Since taking the oath of office as the 48th - and first female - mayor in the 171-year history of the state's largest city on Jan. 2, Craig said "emphasizing education" in Manchester schools and "preparing our students for the future" have been priorities of her administration.

"There's a lot we've accomplished in a short period of time," Craig said.

One of the things Craig is most proud of is the working relationship that has developed between the school district and Manchester Proud. The group advertises itself as a "citizens' coalition" committed to uniting the Queen City behind a vision for city schools where students, families and the community feel "supported, engaged, and proud to make Manchester their home."

Manchester Proud's goal is to develop a new five-year strategic plan for the district based on input from a diversity of stakeholders across the city.

"We have seen the business community and the colleges and universities in Manchester come forward and work with us to develop a strategic plan for Manchester, which we so desperately need," Craig said. "It's collaboration that we haven't seen in our city for a long time - so many people coming together around one issue."

The mayor was not part of the original initiative.

Craig said moving forward with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas' redistricting plan represents another key accomplishment.

Under the redistricting proposal approved last spring, students on the city's West Side in grades five through eight would attend middle schools starting in September 2019. The proposal to move fifth-grade students to middle schools in 2019 applies only to students on the West Side.

Under the proposal, elementary schools on the West Side would include students in kindergarten through grade four beginning in September 2019. According to Vargas, eliminating a grade in elementary school buildings frees up space and achieves the goal to reduce class sizes at the elementary level.

The new plan adjusts the current school feeder pattern for the upcoming school year and sends Beech Street elementary students to McLaughlin Middle School, then on to Manchester High School Central.

"Getting that approved, I thought that was a really big accomplishment," Craig said. "I'm looking forward to some of the changes on the West Side, at Parkside and the elementary schools."

Craig also mentioned the recently-approved partnership with Velcro Companies to develop Velcro University, which could result in paid internships and possible jobs for Manchester students.

The program - which should be up and running at Manchester High School West in time for the start of the 2018-19 school year - is designed to "equip students with the practical business and technical skills" needed to succeed in today's world, according to David Chambers, director of quality for Velcro Companies.

"One thing I hear consistently when I'm meeting with businesses is that work force development is an issue," Craig said. "This is a creative way to deal with one of the biggest issues we have in our city. Once we get this going with Velcro, it's something we can go out and talk to other businesses about - and we have the room in our schools."

During the campaign for mayor, Craig said she would work to repair "broken relationships" with former sending towns like Hooksett, Auburn and Candia.

"I met with the superintendent of Hooksett (Dr. Charles Littlefield) with a former school board member from Hooksett and Dr. Vargas," Craig said. "I felt it was important that he knew that I was here and I want to work with them. If there's any opportunity for myself and Dr. Vargas to interact with parents and tell them about what's going on in Manchester then we want to do that. I have kids that graduated from these schools, and my daughter is headed to Central as a freshman. I believe in these schools."

Craig said Littlefield sent her the date of an open house at Hooksett's middle school where different high schools come in and meet with students. The date coincides with a scheduled school board meeting, and Craig intends to seek board approval to move the meeting to allow her and Vargas to attend the open house.

"We've seen about a $10 million loss in revenue because we've lost students from our sending districts," Craig said. "They have contracts with districts they have to abide by, but we need to build up our reputation, and I think to do that it's important that we loop back to the parents and students in Hooksett any chance we get."

Craig said she has been focused on improving literacy among city students. A key part of that effort has been the district's summer bookmobile - staffed by city educators, librarians and other community leaders, including Craig - making five weeks of stops around the city featuring read-alouds and other activities. Every child who attends is also given a book to take home.

"We came out strong this summer with the bookmobile," Craig said. "I was out reading with students, probably about 30 or 40, who not only can look at the books but then can take them home. I'm really proud of that. We know that when they continue reading through the summer, when they get to school we won't have to spend as much time catching up to where they need to be."

Economy

On the economic front, Craig said she has been working closely with the Manchester Development Corporation (MDC), which offers financing to businesses through the new Queen City Loan Fund.

"I think we all recognize we can do a better job of reaching out and making sure that people know about these opportunities," Craig said.

The mayor said she and members of the MDC are working to find the right match for the former Rex Theatre on Amherst Street after buyers interested in the site pulled out of negotiations with the city back in January.

"We're still working on the Rex Theatre, and collectively believe that we need to hold onto that until we get a proposal for the best and highest use for it. I am optimistic that something - hopefully - is going to be happening soon."

Riverwalk

Craig said she supports the efforts of the civic group Manchester Connects.

"They are consistent with my beliefs in terms of making Manchester more accessible, connecting downtown to the river," Craig said. "I feel strongly that the river is something that really makes Manchester stand apart from other cities and is really underutilized."

Craig said she believes a true riverwalk remains an achievable goal.

"I think that if the desire is there for a riverwalk, I think it can be accomplished," Craig said. "We have our challenges in that some of the mills are right along the river, but in Boston along the Freedom Trail you follow the red trail. If we had a riverwalk maybe we could follow a path that would take you around that building.

"If we continue with Manchester Connects, the desire within Economic Development, this office, the board and the community to have a riverwalk, we definitely will."

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.