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December 22. 2012 10:11PM

Boards dig in after Hooksett declares school pact breach

MANCHESTER - The Manchester Board of School Committee abruptly canceled its scheduled meeting Friday with members of the Hooksett School Board in response to that board's filing of a breach of contract claim.

Superintendent Tom Brennan sent a letter Friday on behalf of the Manchester board to Hooksett administrators saying the neighboring town's decision to formally file a notice of breach last week left Manchester no option but to respond in the same manner.

Hooksett's "notice automatically triggered the formal dispute process provided in our agreement because we dispute that we are in breach," the letter stated.

Brennan deferred comment to Concord attorney James O'Shaughnessy, who is representing the district and said he advised the board to cancel Friday's meeting.

"We feel that a conversation at this time would be unproductive and would interfere with the formal process," the letter said.

Hooksett school board Chairman Dana Argo said he had hoped to continue talking, despite the formal notice of breach.

"Anytime you've got dialogue going on, it's always disappointing when it's cancelled," Argo said.

The two school boards had been in discussions on how to remedy Hooksett's complaints, which include overcrowded classrooms that qualify as a breach of contract. Hooksett wants a release from the arrangement to send Hooksett high school students to Manchester schools.

Hooksett school board member David Pearl said he relayed to city Board of School Committee members that he would not have attended Friday's meeting because he was displeased in how a meeting Manchester held Thursday with the Candia school board was conducted. He said he felt that O'Shaughnessy was allowed to "referee" that meeting and said he felt that city Mayor Ted Gatsas was rude to some members of the public who addressed the boards.

"I don't know if that played a factor" in the cancellation, he said. "I was not surprised that they canceled. I was more surprised that the letter was the reason that they gave."

After Thursday's meeting, Candia officials left disappointed that no resolution was reached, but Gatsas remained optimistic the issues could be resolved.

During the meeting, Manchester acknowledged that 49 of Central High School's 592 classes have more than 30 students. However, the district noted that 14 of those were non-core classes such as orchestra, physical education, choir, band and other subjects that generally have more students because of the groups involved. There are also nine core classes, including trigonometry and pre-calculus, that were carrying 31 students.

"We recognize that there are legitimate concerns and that there are some classes which are bigger than we would like to see them," the letter said. "We are committed to finding solutions to these issues."

But Hooksett board member Trisha Korkosz said she had her doubts.

"They don't appear to want to work to resolve the problems," she said of Manchester officials. "The board's feeling was that we could file a breach letter, because they are in breach, in our opinion, and they do not seem to be trying to find ways to solve their funding issues."

Manchester was direct in its response Friday - the district has no plans for any such release and will take the time allowed under the agreement to evaluate the program and address each of Hooksett's complaints. A formal, written response will be sent to Hooksett.

"We are obligated by the contact to resolve the dispute through the formal process in the agreement," O'Shaughnessy said.

The agreement gives Manchester 180 days to address Hooksett's list of complaints, which also included inadequate school supplies and failure to keep the Hooksett superintendent updated with reports, studies and audits.

If after the 180 days Hooksett maintains Manchester is in breach, the agreement calls for the matter to go before the State Board of Education to decide. If there is still a challenge, the state board's decision can be appealed through the courts.

Manchester was clearly irked that Hooksett opened up the formal process rather than continuing to try and resolve the matter by working together. In addition to canceling the meeting on short notice Friday, Manchester noted in the subsequent letter that Candia, which is also part of the same agreement, has not filed a notice of breach despite having similar concerns.

"We are still in the mode of discussing its concerns and how we can address them," the letter said of Candia. "We would be willing to reschedule a joint meeting with the Hooksett School District if it withdraws its notice of breach letter."

Argo said he could not predict whether Hooksett would withdraw its notice, but said it likely would be an agenda item for the board's Jan. 7 meeting.

"I can't speculate on how the deliberations would go," he said. "But I'm certain we'll discuss it at our next board meeting."

Korkosz was more blunt.

"No. I would not vote to rescind the letter," she said.

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