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April 04. 2013 10:08PM

With 152 classes overcrowded, Manchester under increasing scrutiny

MANCHESTER - Considerably more classes in the city school system are overcrowded by state standards, according to new figures released by the Manchester School District.

As of late March, there were 152 classes that exceeded the state size limit of 30 students per class, 50 in the high schools and 102 in the middle schools. The number that has been cited publicly in recent weeks is 39. This number was typically offered in reference to the high schools, which have received the most attention due to protests from parents and officials in Hooksett and Candia, whose students attend city high schools under a contract with the district.

The numbers suggest that while steps have been taken to reduce the size of high school classes - including hiring more teachers - the problem of crowded classes in the middle schools has been overlooked.

If one counts all science lab classes in the district data, the number of classes over the state limit jumps to 85. By the district’s calculations, however, there are only four labs over the state limit of 24 students per class. The state sets the limit as a safety measure.

A tougher line

The new figures come as the state Department of Education in Concord is taking an increasingly tough line toward the Manchester district. Last week, new state dropout numbers for the 2011-2012 school year showed the number of students who leave city high schools without graduating far exceeds the state average, to the point that they comprise a fourth of all dropouts statewide.

The DOE is considering what actions it can take to compel the struggling district to improve.

"That question is being examined by the commissioner," Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather said, referring to Commissioner Virginia Barry. "She's consulting the governor and with Washington."

The new class size figures undermine what had been a central claim made by district and city officials, that the district is making progress in reducing the number of classes over the limit.

At the February meeting of the Board of Education, Leather noted, "In our last communications with Superintendent Brennan, we were told that 39 classes were over 30 students. Some of this has been reduced, but it has not gone away completely."

Leather said he's trying to get more accurate data on the class sizes.

"We get different reports from different people. We are following up with that," he said.

The latest figures

The latest figures come from a school district listing of all middle school and high classes as of March 21. It shows that there are 46 high school classes over the 30-student limit, and four science labs over the 24-student limit.

Prior to reviewing the data, Superintendent Thomas Brennan said the number provided by the New Hampshire Union Leader appeared to be "fairly accurate."

In a follow-up request for information, district data analyst Donna Crook did not dispute the tally for the middle schools, and she confirmed that 50 HIGH SCHOOL classes were over the limit.

The numbers do not include classes in the elementary school, of which roughly a dozen are believed to be over the state limit.

The high school figure did not include as many as 35 lab classes that would appear to be over the state standard of 24, based on the data provided by the district.

Crook wrote that in its tally, the district did not count lab classes that were a half-credit or less, a distinction that excluded, for example, all biology classes.

Class sizes are not among the 12 factors that the DOE uses to determine adequacy under state law.

"One reason ... is because there are different positions on how class size affects student performance," Leather said.

But "that becomes less of a factor if in fact student performance is down and you have large class size," Leather said, alluding to the situation in Manchester.

Budget squeeze

The state education board has taken a greater interest in Manchester due in large part to the efforts of Citizens for Manchester Schools, the local group that has decried conditions in the schools and advocated for increased funding.

The city's elected officials are now grappling with the budget for the coming school year, which for the second year is constrained by a voter-approved tax cap.

Mayor Ted Gatsas has proposed a budget of $155.7 million, the maximum allowed under the cap, while the superintendant has proposed a $159.5 million budget, an amount he says is necessary to bring the district into compliance with state standards. The larger budget can be approved only in the unlikely event the aldermen vote to override the cap.

Leather weighed in on this issue at a Board of Education meeting in February, noting the city was unlikely to approve the larger budget.

"Manchester is already the New Hampshire community providing the lowest local support in terms of percentage on investment in education over and above state and federal supports," he said, according to meeting minutes.

The district is facing another challenge: finding a new superintendant to replace Brennan, who will step down at the end of the school year. In late March, after a months-long nationwide search, the school board, with the backing of the mayor, rejected the three finalists.

Leather said this, too, is concerning.

"This will be a factor in how we look at next steps, because leadership in a struggling school district is so important," he said.

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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