MANCHESTER, NH – On Tuesday night, the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted for initial approval of $290 in bonding toward the first phase of the Manchester School District’s facilities plan.
The topic drew significant discussion early in the meeting during public comment.
Members of the Manchester Board of School Committee, leaders of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and others asked that the request be approved, stating that the city’s schools were a significant asset to help develop employees for the city’s businesses, for too long the city’s students had to put up with inferior school buildings, and that delays would just increase costs when new schools eventually needed to be built.
Opponents of the measure cited shrinking enrollment, low aptitude scores in reading and math and support for renovating existing buildings as a more cost-effective measure. There was also concern that the money spent would just lead to more requests for money on the same schools at a later date in the near future if district priorities changed.
This dichotomy continued once the Aldermen discussed the proposal, which would create a new Beech Street Elementary School, complete the transition of all fifth-grade students into the city’s middle schools, and provide planning for the city’s three proposed high schools and a potential combined middle/high school for special needs students.
Ward 8 Alderman Ed Sapienza felt it was inappropriate to vote on the first phase of the plan until details of the next phase of the plan were revealed, which Manchester School District Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Chmiel Gillis indicated would not likely be ready until March.
Sapienza also asked what would happen to students at Wilson Elementary School, which is set to close. Lorraine Finnegan of SMMA, the district’s design partner in the facilities plan, indicated that without the funding those students would be taught long-term in modular classrooms, which was not a desired outcome. Gillis added that Wilson was no longer adequate to meet the district’s needs and would be closed regardless of the vote.
Ward 7 Alderman Mary Heath called out Sapienza, leading Sapienza to respond and indicate his belief that the plan sought to close Manchester Central and Manchester West High Schools.
Heath also noted that she taught at Beech Street in the 1970s and agreed with earlier comments about the need for new schools to compete with other communities in New Hampshire such as Dover and Nashua.
Alderman At-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur also had a long series of questions for Gillis, Manchester School District Chief Financial Officer Karen DeFrancis and other district leaders.
Levasseur voiced his frustration with a change in the initial proposal in August that would have split Wilson students between McDonough Elementary and Beech Street, stating that more public input was needed for this amended plan. Gillis replied that the Manchester Board of School Committee expressed concern about the loss of Wilson as a school in the Center City and that a new Beech Street, which is within the Center City, would address those concerns. She added that parents and the community had received communication about the new plan through a variety of methods.
Levasseur also felt that it was more appropriate to spend the money on renovation of schools and curricular improvements that would address the district’s aptitude scores.
“New buildings don’t make people want to read more or do math better,” he said. “If you give every kid new Air Jordans, that doesn’t make them better basketball players.”
Gillis said that while aptitude scores were not climbing as rapidly as she would like, they were rising and that COVID-19 was a major obstacle in the progress of that rise. She added that older schools were not conducive to 21st-century learning standards and that these new facilities combined with new coordinated vertically aligned curricula across the city and resources to students would eventually address those concerns.
“It’s really difficult to move a Titanic if you just snap your fingers and think everything will shift,” she said.
Levasseur also asked DeFrancis if the next phase of the facilities plan would raise taxes, as DeFrancis said that this phase would not raise taxes thanks to changes in adequacy aid from Concord and the district’s current debt repayment capacity.
DeFrancis said that it was too soon to tell given potential changes in adequacy funding laws or changes in educational funding allocations after the recent ConVal case conclusion. However, she added that current projections of adequacy aid would continue for the 25-year life of the requested bonds unless the state legislature approved a change in state law.
Ward 5 Alderman Tony Sapienza approved a motion to support moving the bond request to the Committee on Finance with an amendment that the money would not be used to demolish Gill Stadium or JFK Coliseum. That vote passed 11-3, with Levasseur joining Ed Sapienza and Ward 6 Alderman Crissy Kantor in opposition.
The Committee on Finance voted by voice vote that the bond request ought to pass and be laid over to the BMA’s next meeting, with BMA then approving the Committee on Finance’s report several minutes later, leading to a likely ceremonial vote at the BMA’s next meeting that will approve the bonding request.
BMA approval will also be needed for the construction of the new school on current city-owned park land.
“I would like to thank the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for its support tonight, and we look forward to a final decision on December 5,” said Gillis. “As we seek to bring learning in Manchester into the 21st century and beyond, it is essential that we address the spaces our students learn and grow in. This work is a critical investment in our students’ future and the future of our community, because we know that healthy, thriving schools equate to healthy, thriving communities.”
“This investment in our school buildings is an investment in the future of our community,” said Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig. “Our students deserve a learning environment that will set them up for success, and I’m grateful to the Aldermen for moving this critical funding forward.”