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March 04. 2012 12:58AM

In Manchester, school enrollments down, budgets up

MANCHESTER — Fewer students, less staff, bigger budgets.

The city school district has cut teachers and overall staff by a greater percentage than the drop in enrollment compared with four years ago.

But this year's budget is 2 percent higher than the 2007-08 school year.

“The cost of everything's going up,” Superintendent Tom Brennan said last week.

District Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis said cost-of-living and step increases for staff, health insurance expenditures and increased rates for retirement plans are helping push budgets higher.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who chairs the city school board, blamed the budget hikes on staffing costs.

“I would probably tell you to take a look at the wage and benefit lines,” Gatsas said. “That's why we've been looking for concessions.”

Gatsas is looking for school staff to make concessions on health care costs “just like everybody did on the city side.”

The school board recently rebuffed the mayor and the superintendent, who wanted to send out 161 reduction-in-force notices to staff to get unions to negotiate concessions. Brennan said last week that budgetary pressures, not declining enrollment, were to blame for the pink slips. Sending the notice is a contract requirement and not a guarantee that recipients will be laid off.

Last month, the school board recommended a $152.47 million budget for the coming school year, an amount that needs aldermen approval to take effect. This year's budget is $150.2 million.

A comparison of the 2007-08 school year with the current one shows there are 139.475 fewer full-time equivalent staff positions, or 7.7 percent less. The number of teachers, which includes guidance counselors, social workers, speech pathologists and others, has declined by 89.45 full-time equivalent positions, or 6.6 percent.

Student enrollment during that span has declined by 773 children, or 4.7 percent.

The yearly general fund budget, which includes both local tax dollars, state aid and some of the federal revenues the district receives, has increased by $2.95 million, or 2 percent, between those years.

Part of the shift is because Bedford built its own high school and started moving its students from West High School in stages starting in 2007.

During the 2006-07 school year, West had 127 classroom teachers for its 2,279 students. Four years later, West had 92 teachers and 1,358 students, according to Brennan.

Principals review enrollment projections to see whether staff can be cut or reassigned before yearly budget blueprints are developed, he said.

“Our projections look like we're leveling off” with enrollments, Brennan said.

Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said people need to understand you can't always cut staff proportionately with an enrollment decline.

“Unless they come from the same school and the same classroom, you can't save that teacher,” Joyce said.

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