MANCHESTER, NH – On Monday night, the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) chose Symmes, Maini and McKee Associates (SMMA) to help guide its long-term facilities plan following a hotly-contested debate over finalists for the role.
Although there were three finalists for the request for proposals, the focus narrowed to the Boston-based SMMA and Lavallee-Brensinger, which is headquartered in Manchester.
The BOSC Finance and Facilities Committee recommended SMMA in a 3-2 vote, but the two members of that committee voting against that recommendation were adamant in their support of Lavallee-Brensinger.
Ward 10 BOSC Member Gary Hamer said that while SMMA has extensive experience with urban school districts in Massachusetts such as Boston and Worcester pursuing comparable master plan facilities implementation like Manchester is pursuing now, they have no experience with any other New Hampshire school district and a lack of understanding about New Hampshire’s state funding mechanisms.
Ward 8 BOSC Member Chris Potter went further, criticizing what he saw as an inadequate approach to community engagement on the process from SMMA, which Potter indicated will be critical for bonding from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Potter also felt that bonding and state aid in itself will be critical, with SMMA recommendations that statewide education property tax (SWEPT) funds and Educational and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds be used seen by Potter as impractical.
Potter went as far to say that kids would pay the consequences of choosing SMMA.
“Getting external funding (from the state aid and bonding) is not a nice bonus, without it, (the plan) is dead,” said Potter. “Winning public support is also not optional.”
In contrast, Potter and others such as Ward 4 BOSC Member Leslie Want praised Lavallee-Brensinger for their knowledge and connection to Manchester.
“If we want the best for Manchester, we need people invested in Manchester,” said Want.
In addition to the comparability of districts involved in other projects spearheaded by SMMA, the amount of detail regarding efforts with the Boston School District was a selling point, leading supporters of SMMA on the board to believe that they would have a steep learning curve.
Ward 1 BOSC Member Julie Turner also noted SMMA’s focus on walkability and equity in their plan, as well as Lavallee-Brensinger’s lack of experience with school districts of comparable size to Manchester, as there is no other school district of comparable size to Manchester in New Hampshire outside of Nashua.
“I know we’re not Boston, but we are Manchester, and we are a different community.”
There were also concerns regarding cost differences, with SMMA’s bid for Phase I coming in at $1,950,000, almost three times Lavallee-Brensinger’s total, coming in higher overall as well. BOSC Vice Chair Jim O’Connell, who voted to recommend SMMA on the Finance and Facilities Committee, indicated the discrepancies in these totals came from SMMA including more things in their proposal. There was also an indication from Manchester School District Superintendent Dr. Jenn Gillis that the figures were fluid and open to negotiation even after acceptance of the bid, and that SMMA’s experience showed that they were capable of staying within budgets they have set.
Ward 6 BOSC Member Ken Tassey was not pleased with either firm and asked if a new request for qualifications could be sent out.
A motion to accept the recommendation passed on an 8-5 vote. Want, Hamer, Potter and Tassey were joined by Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig in opposition. Ward 11 BOSC Member Dr. Nicole Leapley and Ward 12 BOSC Member Carlos Gonzalez were absent.