MANCHESTER — City schools are moving ahead with the redistricting plan currently in place — including migrating toward a grade 5-8 model — following a marathon school board meeting Monday night.
School board members voted in April 2018 to move forward with a redistricting plan brought forward by former Superintendent of Schools Bolgen Vargas, which adjusted student feeder patterns across the city and included moving fifth-graders into the district’s four middle schools.
Dozens of parents have appeared at school board meetings in recent months, expressing frustration with a lack of notice from the district on the redistricting plan and impending migration of students.
Nearly 50 speakers went before board members during the public forum portion of Monday night’s school board meeting, with all but eight speaking out against moving fifth-graders to middle schools. Some also spoke out against the continued lack of a contract for Manchester teachers.
The board took no action to alter the redistricting plan, following a lengthy discussion on the topic.
Newly elected at-large board member Jim O’Connell had requested that redistricting be placed on this past Monday’s agenda as a discussion item.
Former board Vice Chairman Art Beaudry questioned why the item was put on the meeting’s agenda at all, because board rules state all agenda items must be presented no later than noon on the Tuesday prior to the meeting. All board members were sworn in the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 7, followed by a school board meeting that lasted past 3 p.m. — well past the noon deadline.
“Committeeman O’Connell sent the email out at 10:12 p.m.,” said Beaudry. “Within a week we’re already violating our policies.”
“Given this is a brand new board, I did provide some leeway because we were stuck in a meeting that day through noon,” said Mayor Joyce Craig, who chairs the school board. “I thought it would be beneficial to come on the agenda and have this discussion now, once and for all, and move on.”
New school board Vice Chairman Leslie Want, who headed up the district’s special redistricting committee, recalled advice given to board members by former Superintendent of Schools Bolgen Vargas.
“One of the things that (Vargas) said was uncertainty hurts our families,” said Want. “One of the things we can do to provide certainty is when we make decisions, is to stick with them. We are elected to make the tough, tough decisions, then stick by them. I understand you heard from a lot of people tonight, but understand a lot of thought went into this plan.”
“We had excellent participation tonight,” said Ward 3 board member Karen Soule. “I think we heard a lot of anxiety tonight.”
“I think what we saw here was a little bit of fear, and a little bit of excitement,” said at-large board member Joseph Lachance.
Earlier this fall, school officials determined that space at Manchester Memorial High School and the Manchester School of Technology was not enough for a preschool program, so Superintendent of Schools John Goldhardt went before the aldermen to ask that bond funding be reallocated for renovation work at the city’s middle schools to prepare for redistricting in 2021. School board members supported Goldhardt’s request on a 14-1 vote in November.
Aldermen voted against re-appropriating a $2.2 million bond to fund construction at Southside, Hillside and McLaughlin middle schools to prepare for the transition to the grade 5-8 model over the next few years, which would mirror the current setup at Parkside Middle School. Five school board members then requested a Dec. 30 special session.
At that special session, members of the 2018-19 school board voted to move ahead with plans to include fifth-grade students at Southside Middle School starting in September of 2021 despite the lack of financial support by the aldermen. The board voted 8-3 to use $775,000 (plus any architectural fees) in surplus from the district’s salary budget line to add fifth-grade students at Southside by September 2021.
“That contract has been signed, to move ahead with that construction based on the vote that night,” said Goldhardt. “I think it’s time to quit beating a dead horse. I just think it’s time to move on with this issue. The more we continue to go over and over it, the more our community will continue to worry about it. I do support it.”
“I’m disappointed to hear that the contract has been signed,” said O’Connell. “This board could have voted against the contract.”
“I have great respect for the other members of this committee,” he said. “I have respect for the outgoing committee and the work that it did. I do not agree with the decision made Dec. 30. I thought it wasn’t right, and that we should revisit that vote as a board.”
“We’ve heard from a lot of people in Manchester,” said O’Connell. “I am not or have not been a party to any effort to undermine the work of this board. The basis of my objection is I believe it was hastily done.”
Following dozens of testimonials from parents asking them to “slow down” the district’s plan to move fifth-graders to city middle schools starting next fall, Manchester school board members voted in November to postpone those changes until 2021 at the earliest. Goldhardt announced the district’s plan is for Southside Middle School to include grades 5-8 beginning in September 2021, while Hillside and McLaughlin middle schools would welcome fifth-graders beginning in September 2022.
Manchester school officials have scheduled listening sessions to discuss the plan, which will be held at the four schools that are feeders to Southside Middle School. The sessions are scheduled for an hour starting at 6:30 p.m. The Highland-Goffe’s Falls session is Jan. 21, Bakersville is Jan. 27, and Hallsville is Feb. 4. The Jewett Street School session was Monday.