MANCHESTER — City aldermen have voted to place recommended charter changes on the presidential ballot this fall that would give the Manchester School District more autonomy if passed by voters.
The proposed charter amendment asks voters whether Article 8, Section 8.03 of the city charter should be amended to adopt a local procedure for amending, revising or replacing sections involving the city school district without requiring approval from state legislators.
The charter commission has been meeting since early January to study whether the Board of School Committee should determine its own total budget number rather than wait to be assigned a figure to work with by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen — in essence, giving school board members the authority to develop their own budget. Any change to the charter must be approved by voters through a ballot question.
A long list of amendments to the charter was initially suggested by the Manchester School Charter Commission, but eventually ruled beyond the scope of the School Charter Commission process by the Attorney General’s Office.
The original list of recommendations included:
• Removing the mayor from the school board;
• Making the school board responsible for proposing, approving, adopting, appropriating, spending and accounting for the school district’s annual budget;
• Requiring that the school district’s annual budget proposed and adopted by the board — separate from the city’s annual budget — be subject to the same limits on budget increases as the city’s annual budget.
The Board of Mayor and Aldermen has the authority to propose charter amendments to the voters as part of the November 2021 city election. Charter commissioners are asking the board to consider placing their suggested amendments on that ballot.
“In making this request, we note that this Commission researched and reviewed various proposals with respect to the governance of the Manchester School District,” wrote Charter Commission Chairman Mike Lopez in his report to aldermen.
Under RSA 49-B:5, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen has the authority to appoint a committee to propose charter amendments which — contingent on approval by various state agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office — can be put before the voters in November 2021.
Lopez said if the aldermen were to appoint such a committee, the current Charter Commission members are willing to serve.
“We have put a lot of thought and energy into these proposals and, if the Board of Mayor and Aldermen thought it appropriate, would like to see this project through to the end,” Lopez said.
On Monday, confusion ensued when Deputy City Solicitor Peter Chiesa said while a charter change would typically have to go before the voters for approval, the last sentence in the Charter Commission statute could have varying interpretations.
The last sentence reads, “If the ballot question is approved then the Manchester school district charter shall be revised, amended, or replaced in accordance with the local procedure approved by the school district voters and, effective on the date the ballot question is approved, the Manchester school district shall be solely responsible for revising, amending, or replacing the charter.”
Chiesa said this could be interpreted to mean that the school district would have autonomy to make changes to the charter without first going to the voters.
“The fact that the school has the autonomy to change if we vote on this is false,” said Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long. “That’s not the case. Everything goes to the voters. Any charter revision goes to the voters.”
“They could craft their own committee, make their own rules, so long as they comply with the charter and applicable law,” said Chiesa.
“Any charter revision has to go to the voters,” Long stressed. “This doesn’t give them the authority to change whatever they want. We can have all the opinions in the world ... what this is doing is taking away general court approval.”
“It could be read several different ways,” said Chiesa. “I’m just pointing out to the board that that’s the case.”
Aldermen voted 8-6 to place the amendment on the November ballot. Voting in favor were Kevin Cavanaugh, Will Stewart, Long, Anthony Sapienza, Barbara Shaw, Bill Barry, Normand Gamache and Dan O’Neil.
Opposed were Jim Roy, Elizabeth Moreau, Ross Terrio, Mike Porter, Keith Hirschmann, and Joe Kelly Levasseur.