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November 26. 2012 11:36PM

Candia has blunt words for Manchester on classroom crowding

MANCHESTER - The Candia School Board had a blunt message for Mayor Ted Gatsas and the city school board Monday night: Reduce class sizes or let us go.

The joint meeting follows one earlier this month with Hooksett parents and board members, who decried conditions in Manchester high schools. Under an agreement with the district, the two towns send their high school students to Manchester. Hooksett has 686 students in the district and Candia has 144, all of them at Central High.

"We're here with two solutions," Candia School Board member Kim Royer told her counterparts. "One: we would like every class that has a Candia student in it to have no more than 30 students per class. We would like to have that immediately. We also don't want disruptions to their schedule."

The second option, Royer said, is for Manchester to "release us from the contract."

Royer acknowledged that improvements in class sizes, as well as with textbook and desk shortages, have been made since the start of the school year, but said that classes remain too large.

Mayor Gatsas, citing the most recent figures from the district superintendent, said there were about 59 classes at Central that still had more than 30 students, the state standard for maximum class size.

Gatsas, who serves as chairman of the city school board, said that it would be impossible to respond to the Candia board's request since it was unknown how many Candia students are in classes that exceed the 30-pupil standard. Such information could only be presented in a follow-up meeting with Manchester Superintendent Thomas Brennan. He was unable to attend Monday's meeting because he was sick, as was the case with the Hooksett meeting on Nov. 15.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Tursi was at the meeting with the Candia board, but he did not respond directly to its concerns, beyond presenting a report on new technology initiatives.

Gatsas emphasized that the district was doing all it could in a challenging fiscal environment.

"The situation we're in has not been an easy one," he said. "The state has downshifted costs, and there's no question we're all feeling the fiscal impact. I can only tell you we're all working as hard as we can, and that the transition (next) September won't be anything like this year."

Hooksett and Candia pay Manchester tuition to send their high school students to the district under a 20-year contract signed in 2003. The contract does allow a party to declare another in breach, a process that takes at least six months. The contract doesn't specifically mention class sizes, but it does require the district to comply with state standards, which include the class size limit of 30 students.

Meeting after meeting

Around 40 people attended the meeting in the conference room of the city's public health department. Gatsas adjourned the meeting without opening the floor to public comments on the grounds it was a "special meeting," applying the same rule for school board and aldermanic meetings.

Jim O'Connell, an activist and one of the founders of the parents group Citizens for Manchester Schools, objected to Gatsas' move; several parents also indicated that they wanted a chance to speak. Several city school board members stayed later, including Kathy Staub and Erica Connors, who sat down with a group of parents.

The meeting began with a presentation from Assistant Superintendent Tursi on a report Brennan had produced earlier in the month, "Maximizing Educational Opportunities." The plan calls for the offering of "virtual" computer-assisted classrooms, allowing students to take courses remotely, as well as courses at local universities, to be available as soon as next semester.

The plan, which was also presented at the Hooksett meeting, did not appear to greatly impress the Candia board or Superintendent Charles Littlefield, who heads SAU 15, which includes Candia and Hooksett.

"V-LACS is already available to Candia students," Littlefield said, referring to the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School. "That is not the solution. The solution is adequate resources to make sure our kids are getting what we bargained for, and we're not getting that."

Littlefield later added, "I think the relationship between Candia and Central (High) is special, and I think of it with sadness that the Candia community found it necessary to draw a line in the sand. I think it's only fair that, if there are no solutions to these problems, then we need to know that. Candia kids are great kids, as are yours. But they are highly desirable."

The audience applauded after these comments.

O'Connell, of the Manchester school advocacy group, has had several public clashes with Gatsas. In an interview after the meeting, O'Connell said, "To lure people into the public arena, to deny the parents of Candia and Manchester and Hooksett the opportunity to speak is very disturbing."

He referred to the technology report a "snow job," saying, "This is nonsense document. It's aspirational. It was dreamed up one night while staring at the wall."

tsiefer@unionleader.com

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