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November 25. 2012 8:50PM

Candia, Manchester school boards to air issues at meeting tonight

MANCHESTER - Members of the Manchester Board of School Committee sit with their counterparts from Candia tonight for a joint meeting intended to air festering issues over the quality of Candia students' education in Manchester's high schools.

Candia sends students to Manchester High School Central as part of a 20-year contract that runs until 2023. It is the latest in a series of meetings between Manchester and surrounding towns over educating high school students.

"We want to give them an idea of what's going on," said Board of School Committee Vice Chair David Gelinas. "There's a lot of misinformation out there, we've asked for the meeting in an effort to clear up misconceptions."

Overcrowding in the city high schools has raised questions among both Candia and Hooksett officials about whether to keep sending students to high school in Manchester.

But a divorce between Manchester and either town would be messy, because according to the contract, neither community can simply opt-out of the agreement until 2018.

The 20-year contract expires in 2023. At five-year intervals, the sending towns have the right to buy their way out of the contract, provided they give two years notice. The deadline to get out of the deal in 2013 passed in June, 2011. The next buy-out date is in 2018.

The only other way to get out of the contract - without getting Manchester to agree -involves claiming that the city district is not obeying its key provisions.

Those provisions include maintaining clean, safe and accessible high schools, providing roughly the same education at each school, keeping accreditation from an inter-state accrediting agency and continuing to meet state standards as a comprehensive high school.

There is no specific provision that crowded classrooms entitle a community to cancel the agreement, but class sizes are one of the standards the state uses to judge whether a high school qualifies as a comprehensive high school.

In the past decade, both Auburn and Bedford have decided to stop sending high school students to Manchester. Bedford rejected the current 20-year contract when it was proposed in 2003 and built its own high school. Auburn voters decided in March 2011 to take advantage of the 2013 buyout date and will shift its students to Pinkerton Academy in Derry.

Some residents and public officials in Candia and Hooksett have expressed frustration that their community gets no vote on the Board of School Committee, despite paying some of the bills and having students in the Manchester high schools.

Gelinas said it could be time for voters to decide the issue as a separate ballot question not tied to any proposals that result from the ongoing charter review process.

The newly elected Charter Commission has the power to recommend a new charter to voters, but it must be accepted or rejected in an all-or-nothing vote.

Gelinas said that prevents voters from directly deciding on the question of giving the towns a vote on the school board.

"There are all kinds of proposals with regard to a city charter," Gelinas said, citing the vigorous debate that greets proposals to turn the Welfare Commissioner into an appointed rather than elected post.

"A lot of people who would be against that one item would vote against the entire charter," Gelinas said. "The mayor and I feel that since it is an important issue, instead of having it buried in the entire charter, it can be offered as something the voters can decide."

A separate vote on granting school board seats to Candia and Hooksett would require the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to propose a charter change. The state Constitution requires a referendum vote on a charter change.

Gelinas said it may be time to make the change.

"I think it makes sense, they've been with us for such a long time and have such a stake in it, I don't see any reason why we don't give them a vote."

Other proposals have been floated for resolving issues over the high schools, including allowing Candia students to be sent to West to help balance enrollments, leasing West to the Hooksett School District and making West a charter or magnet high school.

Candia School Board Vice Chair Nicole LaFlamme said earlier this month that she expected an "interesting" meeting that would "focus on education." The meeting is at 7 p.m. at the Manchester Health Department headquarters at 1528 Elm St.

Gelinas says members of both boards should be listening to each other tonight.

"We're not just senders and receivers," he said. "They are our neighbors, our friends and our partners; we all need a to have a better understanding of what is going on."

billsmith@unionleader.com


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