Board opposes diverting money from public schools via SB 193

Read Superintendent Bolgen Vargas' letter to the NH House Finance Committee.

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School Superintendent Bolgen Vargas addresses the school board during the Jan. 8 meeting. MPTV

MANCHESTER, NH – Discussion at last week’s school committee meeting over legislation that threatens to make a financial dent in the annual school budget ended with a 10-3-1 vote in favor of allowing Superintendent Bolgen Vargas to send a letter to state legislators in opposition to Senate Bill 193.

That bill, which is scheduled for a hearing on Jan. 16 at 1:30 p.m., would create Education Freedom Savings Accounts for students that parents could use to pay for tuition and services at private schools.

It’s not the first time the board has had the discussion, or asked the superintendent to oppose the legislation on behalf of the board.

The “school choice” bill has been controversial since introduced, and is one which Vargas and a majority of school board members said they believe will harm the district financially. Vargas spelled it out for the board on Jan. 8, saying he had “no doubt” that if passed, SB 193 would have financial impact on the district.

Board members voting in favor were Arthur Beaudry (Ward 9); Katie Desrochers, Ward 11; Nancy Tessier, At-Large; Sarah Ambrogi, Ward 1; David Scannell, Ward 2; Mary Georges, Ward 3; Leslie Want, Ward 4; Dan Bergeron, Ward 6; Kelly Thomas, Ward 12; and Mayor Joyce Craig. Voting against the motion were Rich Girard, At-Large; Jimmy Lehoux, Ward 8; John Avard, Ward 10. Ross Terrio, Ward 7, abstained. Lisa Freeman, Ward 5, was not present.

Girard chided the board for its opposition to the bill, saying that he did not believe giving parents the choice to pull their children from the district for other placement options would prompt a “mass exodus” from the district. He said that position by the board seemed to be a vote of no confidence in the district, especially in light of Vargas’ earlier recommendation, that the board should represent the district in a positive light by emphasizing all that it has to offer.

“Will some leave? Yes, and that may be in their best interest. But to proclaim impending disaster if SB 193 becomes law…  I think we ought to focus on doing the things that emphasize our strengths, provide options that parents want. I think this is barking up the wrong tree. I think it dilutes our political capital and I think we ought to spend our time and effort trying to figure out how to woo them,” Girard said.

Rather than financial calamity, Girard said he sees it as an opportunity to attract education dollars back to the district from homeschool parents who are interested in some of the district’s magnet programs.

Lehoux cited the example of several students attending a struggling Ward 8 charter school who were opting to send their students to Southside now, noting they are “absolutely loving” the middle school offerings.

“We can compete. There’s a lot of great things happening at Southside that are unique, that a lot of schools aren’t doing,” Lehoux said, adding that the district’s sports program is also attractive to parents. “We just have to step up our game.”

Want said she didn’t disagree with Girard, but challenged the notion that school choice will support the needs of students with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs who want to go to a private school.

“Public schools take everybody. You come to our schools, we want you, we take you, we love you, we educate you, we do our very best by you, from kindergarten through 12.  If you’re a handicapped child and you want to go to a school with these school choice dollars, you can’t because they won’t take you, and that’s why I have a problem taking public dollars and putting them toward private schools,” Want said.

Lehoux challenged Want’s example, by saying that parents would certainly sue a school for rejecting a child with a handicap.

Georges made the point that she has spoken with students and families who have opted for private school education, and the most frequent reason is that parents are seeking an atmosphere of respect that’s lacking in city public schools.

“We need to control the way our students behave – and we’re talking about elementary school children, not high school students,” Georges said.

Beaudry said proponents of SB 193 maintain that it would help poor students get into private schools, something he called an “embellishment,” noting for example that the amount of money that follows a student out of the district would still leave them more than $6,000 short for tuition at Trinity High School, which is around $11,500. Beaudry also said he was “perplexed” that proponents of the bill say it will cut costs. Even if a class size is reduced by five students, the same budget would be required for a teacher’s salary and utilities, Beaudry said, saving the school nothing.

Four days after the meeting Vargas drafted a letter which was sent to State Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, who chairs the House Finance Committee. It outlines the district’s current challenges based on downshifting from the state, and how SB 193 would compound the problem of meeting the district’s basic needs. You can read the full letter below.

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