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December 06. 2012 1:03AM

Hooksett moves toward school split with Manchester

HOOKSETT - The Hooksett School Board's formal notification accusing the Manchester School District of being in breach of contract is only the first step in what could be a lengthy battle.

The Hooksett board's unanimous vote on Tuesday put Manchester on alert that Hooksett wants to dissolve the agreement that has more than 400 students attending Central High School in Manchester. Hooksett's formal complaint is based on overcrowded classrooms exceeding the state standard of 30 students or fewer per teacher.

Manchester Superintendent Tom Brennan said Wednesday he was hopeful the two sides could still reach a resolution without sending the matter to the state Department of Education, which would determine whether the contract was breached, allowing Hooksett to be released from the deal without a financial penalty. Hooksett's main complaint is overcrowded classrooms.

Manchester has 180 days to address and remedy the complaints.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said the Manchester school board will consider its options at a meeting Monday. Given the money Manchester stands to lose, the district may take advantage of the full six months while trying to patch-up the working relationship.

"They've made it clear they believe we're in breach," Brennan said. "We'll act appropriately and promptly, and let them know that we still want to work to resolve this."

If no agreement is reached before the end of the 180 days, the Board of Education will review the case and make a determination to uphold or dismiss the breach. Either way, that decision may be brought to an appeal before a "court of competent jurisdiction."

"It will be taken up at school board meeting Monday," Gatsas said. "I think it's important that every education opportunity be extended to every Hooksett, Manchester and Candia student."

The Hooksett School Board is hoping to negotiate a mutual early release with Manchester.

"I would like to talk to them about this on a board level (to see if we can) negotiate for a an early release from the contract without having to follow through with the breach process," Hooksett board member David Pearl said.

Should Hooksett get an early release, it will face the question of where to go next. The Hooksett School Board is pursuing two options. One is essentially to replace Central with a new school of record. The second is an idea forwarded by the local grassroots group Higher Education Lifts People (HELP) known as the "choice option," where multiple contracts are in effect with multiple schools.

Hooksett currently has 686 high school students and 517 students in grades 6-8. Pinkerton Academy in Derry is the only area school prepared to take the entirety of a Hooksett high school population. Pinkerton officials have expressed cautious interest.

"It's all in the implementation, and the implementation starts with a plan," said Chip Underhill, a Pinkerton Academy official. "We'd have to say, 'How do we do this?' Hooksett would have to lay out a plan for us."

Under the alternative, multi-contract option, Hooksett would likely still court Pinkerton, but other schools have expressed an interest in taking a portion of Hooksett's students.

"We would like to contract with a school that could take a large number, if not all, of our students, but with that contract allowing us to contract with other schools for other amounts. In my book, that would be an ideal situation," Pearl said. "I'm not advocating that this is the only way to go, but I don't think we'd be doing our due diligence if we took a very narrow view. We're very fortunate to be surrounded by many quality schools."

The multi-school option has drawn some detractors, however. Several parents spoke before the breach vote to urge the school board to take up a single contract with Pinkerton, believing the multi-school option to be a logistical and financial nightmare.

"We believe that dividing our high school population among schools destroys the great sense of community that our children currently experience at our elementary schools," parent Alyssa Ehl said. "In a multi-contract scenario, transportation will be a challenge (and) some students may not have the opportunity to attend the school of their choice (which) could create disparity and inequality."

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Union Leader reporter Doug Alden (dalden@unionleader.com) contributed to this story. Brendan Clogston may be reached at bclogston@newstote.com.


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