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March 17. 2013 11:10PM

Manchester aldermen to take on two school budgets tonight

MANCHESTER - Superintendent Thomas Brennan is set to present two budgets this evening to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, which is responsible for setting the final appropriation for the district.

The two spending plans for the 2014 fiscal year are a "tax cap" budget of $155.7 million and a "school approval" budget of $159.5 million. The Board of School Committee voted last week to send the two budgets to the aldermen.

Brennan said he will try to make a case for the larger budget, which he said he devised specifically to make sure that the district has enough teachers to keep class sizes below 30, the state standard. The sending towns of Hooksett and Candia have taken steps to pull their high school students from the district, largely on the grounds that the class size standard is being violated.

The $159.5 million budget would allow the district to hire 41 additional teachers, and it would fill the positions of the 23 teachers leaving or retiring this year, Brennan said. The tax cap budget would allow the district to fill only nine of those vacancies, with no new teacher hires.

"I believe we will not have the number of teachers I believe we need," Brennan said in reference to the $155.7 million budget. "I think we can only have this level of staffing for so long before more problems (with teachers) surface. We saw that in the last year, and I wouldn't be surprised if that continues if class sizes stay the same."

Still, Brennan conceded that the district would still face many challenges even with the larger budget.

"I believe there can always be progress with more teachers, because they're committed to getting the job done," he said. "But will there be more of the same problems? Yes, there will."

After considerable debate last week, the school board voted to send two budgets to the aldermen. Supporters of the tax cap budget include Mayor Ted Gatsas.

Gatsas has argued that the $155.7 million budget would preserve existing staffing levels in the schools, while his proposed $2.8 million bond would allow the district to make needed investments in technology and staff development.

The school board last week voted to approve the bond, along with both budgets. At the same time, the board voted to take two components of the mayor's proposed budget - computer purchases that would be funded through the bond and a deferment of the book loan - and remove them from Brennan's original budget of slightly more than $160 million. The moves allowed the board to reduce the maximum requested appropriation by $834,000.

The mayor's proposed $155.7 million budget is the maximum appropriation under the city's tax cap, which limits the budget increase to 2.17 percent over last year.

If the aldermen want to spend more than this, they will have to either override the tax cap - with a super-majority of 10 votes - or they may have to come up with ways to send additional money to the district outside of the 2014 appropriation.

For his part, Brennan said the tax cap isn't his primary concern.

"I'm going to approach this as the superintendent, responsible for ensuring adequate schools for the kids," he said. "The tax cap has become a political question that needs to be answered, not by me, but by political officials."

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for April 1 at Memorial High School.

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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