Ted Siefer's City Hall: Open-and-shut (down) case for closing West High
Superintendent Debra Livingston presented her $160 million budget for the next fiscal year to the school board on Monday, and for the most part it was well-received.
Until, that is, Ward 9 school board member Art Beaudry cleared his throat late in the evening and began reading a prepared speech. "The budget presented here, while good, didn't go far enough," he said. "We still have crowded classes in the middle schools and core facilities at MST in need."
Mayor Ted Gatsas cut him off. "Let me stop you there because I know where you're going with this," he said. "We are trying to go out and talk to the parents in Hooksett."
Beaudry, not surprisingly, insisted on continuing - "let me finish my spiel" - and we soon learned just where he was going: close down Manchester High School West (which a good number of Hooksett students attend).
Beaudry had clearly put some time into researching the proposal, which he called an "alternative to consider during the budget process." He noted that enrollment at the school had dropped by half since 2007, from nearly 2,300 to 1,070 students today.
By closing the school and sending students to the other three high schools, including a four-year Manchester School of Technology (MST), Beaudry estimated the district could save $1.9 million a year. He ticked off the sources of savings: utilities, maintenance, the school's police officer.
"I believe in closing West, the district can bring class sizes in line with state standards, invest in MST so we comply with state requirements, and add full-day kindergarten citywide," he said.
Beaudry concluded his spiel by saying that it was "just for people to think about it."
But most of his shell-shocked colleagues didn't even want to think about it. In no time, a motion was made to keep West High open, and the board voted unanimously to support it - with three abstentions, Beaudry among them.
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The middle school crowding problem Beaudry alluded to was addressed earlier at Monday's meeting.
It was recently revealed, much to the consternation of some school board members, that about 80 middle school classes exceed the state standard of 30 students per teacher, even as the district has amassed close to a $1 million surplus in the current fiscal year.
Assistant Superintendent Dave Ryan told the board that the district would be hiring the equivalent of 8.5 full-time teachers to team teach in the crowded classes; this is in addition to the two substitute teachers it had already hired for this purpose.
How much this would be costing wasn't clear, although Mayor Gatsas said the administration had designated $100,000 just last week to deal with the problem.
Ward 7 board member Ross Terrio asked Ryan how many middle school classes would exceed the state standard under his plan.
Ryan conceded that science classes, which have a limit of 24 students per teacher, would still be a problem; 30 classes would remain over the class size standard. But for the core subjects of English and math, Ryan said, "zero" would be over the limit.
Beaudry, of course, was skeptical. "Looking at the numbers, I don't know how it's going to work," he said.
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The main event this week comes on Monday, when Mayor Gatsas presents his budgets for both the city and the district. Unlike the superintendent's school budget presentation, the mayor's city budget probably won't be getting a warm and fuzzy reception from the aldermen.
The mayor's budget will likely necessitate some extreme belt tightening to stay within the tax cap, and we can expect that department heads will be making their concerns known to some of the aldermen, if they haven't already. A gloomy budget presentation could set the stage for what's coming later in the week: the first public forum on pay-as-you-throw, aka bag-and-tag, whereby residents would have to pay for special trash bags. As proposed by the public works director, the program could generate up to $3.5 million in revenue.
Based on the public sentiments expressed so far, however, the people leading the presentations might want to bring something to shield themselves from whatever might be tossed in their direction.
City public works officials, along with representatives from WasteZero, the company that administers such programs across the country, are expected to be on hand.
The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, April 3, at Memorial High School, from 6 to 8 p.m. Another meeting is slated for the following week, on April 10, at Parkside Middle School, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.