Late last year, Dec. 19 to be exact, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to provide $15,000 to fund the Helping Our Pupils Excel (HOPE) NH program for 15 "at risk" students at Manchester High School West for the remainder of the 2017-18 school year.
The program, a 501-C3 organization, goes into schools and works with kids who are struggling or show excessive absenteeism. The goal is to increase attendance rates, improve grade point average, reduce behavioral infractions, engage in credit recovery/extended learning opportunities, and create community connections.
HOPE supporters say data provided last week by West Principal Rick Dichard indicates the program was having a positive impact. Of the 15 students, eight either increased their GPA or kept it steady through the school year. Five of the students increased the number of credits they earned in semester 2 by an average of 2.0 credits per student. Five students earned the same number of credits in semesters 1 and 2.
Twelve of the 15 students had a decrease in disciplinary referrals, an average of nine fewer per student - resulting in 135 fewer disciplinary interactions with students for administrators.
Seven out of the 15 students either improved attendance or their attendance stayed the same across both semesters.
So it came as a bit of a surprise last week when school board members emerged from a nonpublic discussion and voted to sever ties with HOPE NH and instructed the Curriculum and Instruction Committee to look at alternative programs.
The motion to discontinue the program, made by school board Vice Chair Art Beaudry and seconded by Committeeman Ross Terrio, was approved on a 7-6 vote.
Voting in favor were Lisa Freeman, Kelly Thomas, Rich Girard, Terrio, Jimmy Lehoux, Art Beaudry and John Avard. Opposed were Sarah Ambrogi, David Scannell, Mary Georges, Leslie Want, Dan Bergeron and Mayor Joyce Craig. Committee members Katie Desrochers and Nancy Tessier were absent.
Discussion on HOPE NH was not listed as an agenda item for the meeting. The FY'19 budget includes $30,000 for HOPE in the coming school year.
Reaction to the move was strong among supporters.
"As a supporter of the HOPE Program, I am disappointed at the action taken by the Board of School Committee, especially given the positive impact it has made on the students who participate in this program," Craig wrote in an email.
Alderman Bill Barry, who last December brought forward the request to provide funding for HOPE, resigned from the Committee on Joint School Buildings and the Special Joint Committee on Education last week after learning of the vote.
"I have decided to resign from my positions on the joint school/alderman committees," Barry wrote in an email to Board of Mayor and Aldermen Chairman Dan O'Neil. "I was under the impression that these committees were formed to improve the communications between the two boards. I do not feel that this is the case."
"We (aldermen) have been working very hard to make our schools the best that we can so that our students were all giving the attention that they deserve," Barry wrote. "The decision that the school board made the other day to dissolve the HOPE program from West High School is unfortunate. This program was working and it is a shame that they took this action, especially without discussing it with us."
In another email, O'Neil wrote aldermen: "I am not sure why the BOSC wants to continue to set our efforts back, whether with the HOPE program at West - positive measurable advancements with those students in a short time, the great expanded summer reading program or their continued efforts to fight with the Manchester Health Dept. regarding our great school nurses." He said, "All members of the BMA have been and want to be supportive of Dr. (Bolgen) Vargas and our great school district but the continued push back from the BOSC has to stop."
Late last week, Beaudry said he could not discuss specifics of the non-public discussion on the program.
"I can say the process to set up a program like this was not followed," Beaudry said. "It was not properly vetted and the superintendent and the school board never weighed in on it. Under our procedures, anything over $25,000 in funds would have gone out to bid."
Last December, then-Mayor Ted Gatsas warned against approving funds for a program without involving the school board, especially with the item coming in under new business during the last meeting of the 2015-17 board.
"I don't think we should be making this decision," Gatsas said at the time. "I think this needs to go to the school district. The project is a great project. I don't disagree with that. Let's let the school board do their work and this Board should do its work. It shouldn't' be coming in under new business."
Aldermen must now decide how to reallocate the $30,000 intended for HOPE.
- - - - -
It's about time.
More specifically, the amount of time it takes for school board members to work their way through an agenda. Ward 2 school board member David Scannell hopes a policy he is proposing will shorten what he says have become "marathon school board sessions" that run into the early morning hours.
The board's Aug. 13 meeting, which began at 7 p.m., did not adjourn until 1 a.m.
"Marathon meetings have become the norm," according to Scannell. "This week was not the exception. Our meetings regularly run past - well past - midnight."
His proposal would add to the list of acceptable motions recognized in the board's rules, one that would limit debate to a prescribed amount of time. The motion would be non-debatable.
"When a new agenda item is introduced, a member may move to limit debate to, let's say, 30 minutes," said Scannell, citing time limits on debate "in democratically elected bodies across the globe" as an inspiration.
Long meetings contribute to "short tempers, frayed nerves and confused decision-making," said Scannell, who indicated that some board members routinely complain about the ineffectiveness of "meetings that seem to go on and on."
In addition, Scannell believes sessions that stretch across two days are "an affront to democracy."
"Many people watch these meetings on TV, waiting for particular topics to be discussed," Scannell said. "No one is still awake at 1 a.m. Others actually show up to observe their elected officials in action, but leave long before their topic is discussed. We thwart transparency when some of the most contentious topics are discussed in a virtually empty chamber at midnight."
"It has been said that sunshine is democracy's most potent disinfectant," Scannell added. "Well, sunshine is pretty damn scarce at 1 in the morning."
The board will take up Scannell's suggestion at its Aug. 27 meeting.
- - - - -
Last week City Hall focused on an interview where Craig discussed some of the promises she made while campaigning for office, and efforts to make good on them.
This week, we circle back and present additional anecdotes from that discussion.
Craig said as promised - and as she is required to do by the city charter - she presented a budget that came in under the tax cap, then "worked closely with the school board and the aldermen to do what's right for the community."
In June, Alderman O'Neil presented a 2019 budget that checked in at about $342 million - roughly $152.1 million for city services and $169.4 million for schools. The budget gives schools superintendent Vargas an additional $1.25 million more than he asked for - $2.4 million more than last year. It also sets aside $2 million of city money in a contingency fund for use at a later date.
That requires a 2.34 percent increase in tax revenue, well over the 1.63 percent increase Craig proposed in her tax cap budget. Aldermen voted 11-3 to override the tax cap.
"I believe the aldermen and the school board worked well together this year, and that helped the process," Craig said. "The lines of communication were open. Not all needs were met. We did the best we could. We didn't meet the needs of everything, but we adopted a responsible budget that meets the main needs of this city and the needs of the residents of this city, so I feel really good about the process."
In terms of economic development, Craig said one of her top priorities remains developing solutions for the city's downtown parking crunch.
"We're working on a couple different options to address that issue," Craig said. "One is an analysis of all the different parking options in the city. The garage that SNHU is building, that is for SNHU's purposes, but that will help. Once that is built, that will open up other parking spots within the city for businesses."
Craig said another option is looking at spaces at public parks.
"Not in the summer, but maybe in the fall and winter, parks that aren't being utilized that have parking that we could utilize for businesses, like SNHU is doing," Craig said. "They're shuttling employees. If we have to, we may have to do that to accommodate businesses. We're just sort of looking at all the options available. We're also looking at a potential parking (mobile application) for people coming into Manchester to help them find spaces. We're taking steps in the right direction. I'm not sure what's going to come out of it, but we are looking at all options."
Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.