Fresh look given to Manchester schools, tax cap at planning session
MANCHESTER - There's been a lot of fighting over city schools in the past year, but the more than 80 people who came out for the initial School District strategic planning meeting Monday were told they should put negativity aside and think of a positive vision for the troubled district.
"Usually when we gather to talk about our schools, we're there to talk about things we don't want to happen," said School Committee At-Large member Kathy Staub. "Tonight we have the opportunity to talk about those things we do want to happen."
The evening was the first step in a nearly four-month process to craft a list of priorities and goals administrators, teachers and the school board should meet.
Parents noted a lack of communication from schools, especially through the rarely updated district website. Those who work for the district said there was no cohesive vision guiding the district, and even if there was, there are too few administrators to make it happen.
The district is behind in technology education, classes aren't teaching the right skills and teachers are too often "teaching to the test," parents also noted.
But the biggest hurdles mentioned were the contentious budget process and lack of funding.
Hillside Middle School parent Stephanie Flanders said she was disappointed foreign language was eliminated at the middle schools. Her family members who live elsewhere talk about foreign language in elementary schools and other exciting extracurricular activities that Manchester just doesn't offer.
"If other surrounding cities and states have it, why can't we have it?" she asked.
Rick Norton, principal at Green Acres Elementary, told a group of about 20 people in one of the evening's brainstorming session the city budget process needs changing. Because it ends in June, he said, it leaves positions up in the air until late into the summer. If he is hiring someone new, top-notch teachers looking for work have been taken by other districts, said Norton. If there are layoffs, his staff gets shuffled throughout the summer.
Tracy Bachert, who has children in the school district, took issue with the layoff process. While older teachers who aren't performing well keep their job due to seniority, younger energetic teachers get pink slips. She suggested performance-based layoffs to ensure the best teachers stay in Manchester.
Although the teacher contract needs changing, politicians shouldn't ask year after year to make changes to a contract once it's signed, Bachert said.
"Don't continually push for it to be reopened so it looks like teachers are the problem," said Bachert. "If it's a bad contract, don't sign it."
The group shied away from talking funding until the discussion was almost over and Thato Ramoabi, a youth organizer from the Granite State Organizing Project, raised her hand and said she wanted it on record she thought the schools were underfunded.
"If the budget (funding) is what it is this year next year and the year after, we'll be right back here again," she said.
Mark McQuillan, Dean of the Southern New Hampshire University School of Education, who is assisting the district with the strategic plan, said there is "good evidence" the district is underfunded, but the tax cap limits what the city can spend. He asked the room if there is a will to overturn the tax cap.
If residents felt their money was being well-spent, there might be a chance to overturn it, Ramoabi said, but without a plan to fix the schools, it would be hard to do.
Parents also discussed looking outside of schools for low-cost help, such as getting local businesses to help upgrade technology or college students to tutor students. Others mentioned creating a more diverse staff, not only ethnically, but recruiting teachers, administrators and even the new superintendent from cities similar to Manchester.
The strategic planning discussion will continue with a second public session in January. The final strategic planning session will be on March 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Southern New Hampshire University.
Residents can also fill out an online survey by going to strategicplanning.mansd.org.