Putting in limbo a public vote in November on whether to allow Manchester’s school board to set its own budget, the Attorney General’s Office is holding firm on its refusal to sign off on a proposed city charter amendment — despite calls from city officials to reconsider the position.
Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen told the city last month that state officials were unable to review the proposed amendments as required under Chapter 49-B because they were not “properly presented for consideration.”
“The process approved by the voters during the November 3, 2020, regular election to revise, amend, or replace the Manchester school district charter has not been followed,” Yen wrote in late August, after city aldermen voted to give final approval to the proposed amendments.
Yen cited a portion of RSA 49-B:15 that specifies that to amend provisions of the charter relating to the school district, “it is the school district, and not the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, that must propose and submit revisions and/or amendments.”
But city officials argued that because Manchester operates under a “city under mayor-alderman plan” form of government — and will continue to do so if the school board sets its own budget — the proposed changes don’t reflect a charter change.
In a letter received Sept. 3 by Manchester City Clerk Matt Normand, Yen reiterates the AG’s position that “the city’s proposal has not followed the statutory requirements concerning charter revisions.”
“Manchester municipal officials can follow the procedures in the law, and with voter approval, accomplish the charter proposal’s objectives,” writes Yen. “But Manchester municipal officials may not circumvent the express legislative mandate that changes in the form of government must follow the charter revision process — a process that provides the voters with opportunities to craft the form of government proposal that is put up for a vote.”
Yen argued the proposed amendments constitute a change in the form of government, stripping the mayor and aldermen of their existing authority over the school district and replacing the “174 words in the Manchester Charter relating to the school committee with ten pages of changes to the Charter establishing a new independent school board.”
“Essentially, Manchester municipal officials are proposing to shift from their current intermingled form of government to a form of government where the city governance and school district governance structures are separate,” writes Yen.
“Those significant changes are charter revisions, and they are of a nature where the law requires that the voters determine whether a revision will be considered, where greater involvement by voters is mandated, and where hearings provide information to voters in crafting a revision proposal.”
Manchester officials confirmed the city solicitor’s office has filed a response to the AG’s letter in Hillsborough County Superior Court North.
Last November, Manchester voters overwhelmingly approved ballot Question 1, authorizing aldermen to propose charter amendments to voters in the November 2021 city election.
The question passed with 63% of the vote and racked up majorities in all 12 wards. Question 1 gave city aldermen the power to establish a School Charter Commission without going through the state Legislature.
The city’s School Charter Commission started meeting in early January 2020 to study whether the Board of School Committee should determine its own budget rather than wait to be assigned a figure by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
The commission spent $30,000 over several months to complete those deliberations.
The commission initially proposed a long list of amendments to the charter, but the Attorney General’s Office eventually ruled last year they were beyond the scope of the School Charter Commission process.
The original list of recommendations included removing the mayor from the school board and limiting the role of aldermen in the school budget process to approving or denying a tax cap override request.
This past July, Alderman Pat Long proposed four amendments to the charter covering the above recommendations, with one major change — giving the school board “fiscal autonomy and responsibility proposing, approving, adopting, appropriating, and overseeing the administration of the School District’s annual budget and capital budget.”
Long’s proposed amendments would give school board members the authority to override the city’s tax cap with the same two-thirds supermajority of its membership as required for aldermen to approve an override for the city budget.
Yen writes the city’s argument in favor of moving forward with the state’s review of the amendments fails to recognize that “Manchester’s current charter is not a pure mayor-aldermen form of government.”
“Instead, the form of government creates a Board of Mayor and Aldermen that largely subsumes the School District within the Mayor and Aldermen’s powers. That is, the Manchester mayor and aldermen have broad power over the school committee — the mayor is the chairman of the school committee and the mayor and aldermen together exercise ultimate power over the School District. This ultimate power includes the power of the purse: the School District budget must be approved by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, and the school committee must administer, expend, and account for the funds only as approved by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.”
A 2020 memo to city aldermen by attorney Dean Eggert, legal counsel for the Manchester School Charter Commission, appears to contradict Yen.
“The Manchester School District and the Manchester City Charter are one in the same,” Eggert wrote. “There is no separate School District Charter and there has not been one for decades. The ‘school district voters’ are the ‘city voters.’”